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Opinion

Blame China, not Obama or US, for the plight of activist Chen Guangcheng

Beijing, not US mishandling, is responsible for activist Chen's predicament. The US often needs to balance its concern for human rights in favor of Beijing’s cooperation on pressing global issues. This is not one of those times. Obama must stand up to China to defend Chen’s rights.

By Nicholas Burns / May 3, 2012

Blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng is helped by US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell as they leave the US embassy for a hospital in Beijing May 2. Op-ed contributor Nicholas Burns says that 'what separates America and China is the huge ideological gulf between us on the core issue of human freedom.'

US Embassy Beijing Press Office/HO/AP

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Cambridge, Mass.

The dramatic events in Beijing surrounding the brave Chinese activist, Chen Guangcheng, are confounding and hard to fathom at such a great distance and without all the facts. That has not stopped critics who should know better from rushing to blame the Obama administration for having mishandled negotiations with the Chinese authorities over his fate.

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It is irresponsible to second-guess Washington when we don’t know the full story. Instead, the true culprit in this fascinating and increasingly tragic drama is the usual suspect – China’s authoritarian government. China has hounded and mistreated Mr. Chen and his family for years. Beijing is now trying to intimidate him when he is beyond the protection of the American embassy.

None of this is surprising given China’s lamentable human rights record and its shameful status as the one of world’s greatest human rights abusers. It was also standard Chinese practice to demand a US apology for harboring Chen, an apology that will surely not be forthcoming.

The State Department did many things right during this tumultuous past week. It was right to permit Chen to stay within the walls of the American embassy for six days. It was right to keep negotiations with China private and beyond the glare of the press as that maximized the chance of an agreement to protect Chen. And, I have no doubt that Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton and US Ambassador to China Gary Locke, both long-time champions of human rights, did everything in their power to protect him.

Now that Chen has made a series of increasingly anxious statements from his hospital bed, some quite critical of his American protectors, the United States would be well advised to bring his fate back to the center of the talks in Beijing this week.

Secretary Clinton has every right to remind the Chinese government about the commitments it made to permit Chen to rejoin his family and live a life free of intimidation and for continued American government access to him. Given the confusion surrounding Chen’s decision to leave the embassy, this will also make it clear where the US stands – on Chen’s side against China’s cynical leaders.

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