FPI Bulletin: U.S. handling of Chen Guangcheng case will be decisive for human rights, U.S. policy

April 30, 2012

From FPI Director of Democracy and Human Rights Ellen Bork

Washington has dispatched a senior official to Beijing, reportedly to negotiate the fate of Chen Guangcheng, the blind self-taught lawyer and activist who escaped from illegal house arrest and abuse at his home in Shandong province more than a week ago.  The U.S. and Chinese governments are keeping quiet but Chen is believed to be under the protection of American diplomats.  Chinese dissidents, meanwhile, are expressing their high expectations for U.S. intervention on Chen’s behalf.  “If there is a reason why Chinese dissidents revere the U.S., it is for a moment like this,” Bob Fu, an advocate for China’s Christians, told the Financial Times.
China’s dissidents believe the U.S. has the power and the principle to help them.   Unfortunately, the U.S. does not always use these valuable commodities effectively.  Washington conducts its rights policy disproportionately through official channels.  Ironically, while Chen was reportedly moving among safe houses in the capital last week, Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and Harold H. Koh, the department’s legal adviser, were engaged with the U.S.-China Legal Experts dialogue with communist Chinese judicial officials.  According to the Washington Post, they discussed the use of house arrest and residential surveillance. 
Chen’s dramatic flight provides more of an opportunity to Washington to make progress on those dubious practices and other rights abuses than all U.S.-China “dialogues” and expert exchanges combined.  At a minimum, the administration must deliver protection for Chen and his family.  Anything else would be a catastrophic failure – whether Chen is now under U.S. protection or not.   It was therefore disconcerting to hear White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan official say yesterday that in the Chen affair, the administration is seeking the “appropriate balance” between human rights and maintaining “relationships with key countries.” 
But the administration should set its sights higher than taking Chen and his family out of the country.  The goal must be to get Chen back to his home with the freedom to go about his work.  The guards who abused him should be removed and disciplined.  The friends and associates who helped him must also be protected – freed if they are in detention and left alone otherwise.  If, as some have speculated, a sympathetic guard aided Chen in his escape, he too must be protected.  If in the future, Chen and those involved in this episode, which includes the AIDS activist Hu Jia, who finished more than three years in prison last summer, and the blogger He “Pearl” Peirong, are detained, harassed, or abused, there must be consequences. 
Reflexively, the U.S. will try to isolate this matter from what it sees as the “broader” U.S.-China relationship, and to move ahead with the Strategic and Economic Dialogue that Secretary of State Clinton and Treasury Secretary Geithner are scheduled to hold in Beijing May 2 and 3.  That is impossible.  The U.S. cannot separate principle from its China policies.  The role that the U.S. is being asked to play in the protection of Chinese human rights activists conveys both a compliment and an obligation.  The way the administration handles this case will have resounding implications for China’s human rights community.  It has the potential to help them reverse the dynamic of deterioration in human rights of the past several years.  Keeping Chen, his family, and associates free in China would improve the prospects for other dissidents, including the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and his wife, Liu Xia, who also suffers under illegal house arrest.   It would truly justify the reverence of Chinese dissidents.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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