Obama's China fumble

Last Wednesday, President Obama was “spiking the football” in Afghanistan over his role in last year’s dispatching of Osama bin Laden. By week’s end his administration was performing the diplomatic equivalent of a fumbled snap in the case of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.

After escaping house arrest at the end of April, Chen had been staying at the U.S. embassy in Beijing until the embassy effectively handed him over to the Chinese government without an ironclad guarantee that he would be safe. Chen’s supporters say embassy personnel did not give Chen all the information he needed nor did they let him make phone calls.

As of Friday, the State Department had indicated that China’s communist government would grant Chen permission to study abroad at an American university, avoiding a showdown over whether the U.S. would offer Chen asylum. Chen reasonably fears for his life and for the well-being of his family, and reportedly will be allowed to leave for the U.S. with his wife and two young daughters.

We will see if this “deal” is any more reliable than the agreement the administration supposedly had when Chen was removed from the U.S. embassy.

Leaving may sound like the best option. But for a diehard democracy activist like Chen, it is not ideal. Zeng Jinyan, an activist and friend of Chen told The Guardian newspaper that leaving China would be bittersweet.
“I would be absolutely happy for him and his family, but it would reveal that the environment for rights defenders is worsening,” he said. “It would feel desperate if even the most important activist – someone who has the wisdom the ability to make changes in China – had to go into exile to protect his safety.”

Chen’s departure would be a victory of sorts for China’s communist dictatorship. Authoritarian regimes routinely forcibly exile their most troublesome enemies. 

Last year, Cuba’s Marxist regime exiled more than 100 of its political prisoners, which proved to be a triple victory for the regime. It got rid of many of its most prominent enemies, attracted positive media attention and gave itself leverage in negotiating for economic concessions from Europe and the U.S.

Obama was compelled to comment last week as the events surrounding Chen unfolded. “We think China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalizes its own system,” he said at a press conference.

“We want China to be strong and we want it to be prosperous, and we’re very pleased with all the areas of cooperation that we’ve been able to engage in. But we also believe that that relationship will be that much stronger and China will be that much more prosperous and strong as you see improvements on human rights issues in that country.”

What a tepid statement. Of course, the administration made it clear early on that it would take a kid-gloves approach to human rights in China. During Hillary Clinton’s first trip there as secretary of state, she told her hosts that America would not allow human rights issues to “interfere” with other important matters between the countries, including work on climate change.

Last year, Vice President Biden said at a press conference in China, “Maybe the biggest difference in our respective approaches are our approaches to what we refer to as human rights. I recognize that many of you in this auditorium see our advocacy of human rights as at best an intrusion, and at worst an assault on your sovereignty.”

For decades it has been assumed that economic liberalization in China would lead to political liberty and an authentic move toward democracy. But “the China model” has been a model failure to this point. The introductory sentence to Human Rights Watch’s 2012 report on China says it all:

”Against a backdrop of rapid socio-economic change and modernization, China continues to be an authoritarian one-party state that imposes sharp curbs on freedom of expression, association and religion; openly rejects judicial independence and press freedom; and arbitrarily restricts and suppresses human rights defenders and organizations, often through extra-judicial measures.”

Chen first attracted international attention in 2005 for exposing the China’s brutal population control policies. Guangcheng infuriated the regime by preparing a class action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of victims of forced abortion and sterilization as part of the regime’s policy of one child per family. For that and other nonviolent human rights work, Guangcheng has spent the last six years in prison and under house arrest.

China is very sensitive to criticism about its one-child policy, which has prevented more than 400 million births in China, most of them girls. And the Obama administration has at times seemed to praise the brutal policy.

Again in China last year, Vice President Joe Biden referred to the one-child policy as “[a policy] which I fully understand.” The Obama administration has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to promote abortion internationally, including in China.

No matter how the Chen saga ends, it has exposed once again the Obama’s administration’s abysmal record in speaking up for human rights activists and standing up to authoritarian regimes.