The president is in the midst of a tough campaign for re-election.
He has little to boast about at home. On the foreign front, though his removal of Osama bin Laden was a major triumph, he is criticized by his opponents for being tardy in coming to the aid of the oppressed in Libya and Syria, and for being soft on Russia.
The sheltering of Mr. Chen by American diplomats in China could infuriate Beijing’s leaders. Not sheltering Chen – a self-taught lawyer who spoke out against forced abortions and sterilization – would play into the hands of Mr. Obama’s political opponents at home. They would count it as a contradiction of his calls upon China to observe human rights.
The angst in Washington over how to protect Chen without infuriating the Chinese regime could only have been matched in Beijing by the desire of the leadership there to silence Chen without incurring the world’s disdain.
China is currently on a global charm campaign which is hampered by some less-than-charming actions. It has been spending large sums on public diplomacy, especially TV and radio, and scores of Chinese “cultural” centers, many of them planned for the US, lauding China’s history and achievements.
In continents like Africa and Latin America – especially in countries able to help slake China’s new endless thirst for oil – the Chinese government has embarked on major construction and aid projects designed to establish long-term relationships.
The outreach program is far less successful in Asia where closer neighbors are alarmed about a major Chinese military buildup. A massive expansion of China’s naval presence will see many more Chinese warships in the East and South China Seas and the western Pacific ocean.
The problem China encounters in improving its image is widespread knowledge abroad about its undemocratic government and the brutal way it handles dissent. Its charm offensive is undercut when it prevents its Nobel peace prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, from leaving the country, and confines protesters like Chen.
The imbroglio over Chen comes at a particularly inopportune moment, when US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are due in Beijing for strategic and economic talks on Thursday. The discussions are designed to ease some of the tensions in the US-China relationship.
The Chinese regime has been shaken by the recent ouster of Bo Xilai, a senior party official, casting a shadow over top changes in the leadership scheduled to take place later this year. Mr. Bo had been a favored candidate for election to the Politburo Standing Committee at the very pinnacle of the Chinese Communist Party.
There is, of course, no early prospect of China shedding the communist regime as its ruling party, even though the economy has taken on more and more the character of a free market. But there are some whispers of modest political reform and it remains to be seen whether Mr. Xi will attempt to bring them about.
As for Chen, the most plausible option is for political asylum in the US – though the activist wants to stay in China, with safety guaranteed, to carry on his work.
That Washington and Beijing may settle on a solution unwanted by the dissident himself points out how difficult the balancing act between human rights and other interests can be for the United States – and how far China is from political freedom.
But as long as Chinese citizens like Chen overcome blindness, imprisonment, confinement, and persecution in the cause of freedom, change is ultimately inevitable.
John Hughes is a former editor for the Monitor.