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.
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.
There is no question that the relationship with China is now America's most important worldwide. There are plenty of vital issues – Iran, North Korea, Syria, the global economy – for the two governments to discuss. And we often need to balance our concern for human rights in favor of progress in the security and political realm. This is not one of those times.
In the end, what separates America and China is the huge ideological gulf between us on the core issue of human freedom. Chen’s case has become so important symbolically that we simply cannot afford to “balance” it with any other issue this week. We need to stand up to China to defend Chen’s right to live a normal and peaceful life.
One thing is certain. No matter how this drama ends, it has exposed for all the world to see China’s Achilles heel as an emerging superpower. Its denial of basic rights and the brutal repression of its people will discredit the communist regime in every corner of the world and may very well be its ultimate undoing.
The US remains the single greatest power not just because we have a stronger military than China but due to our core belief in what the 19th century Boston abolitionist Theodore Parker described so powerfully: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one…..I am sure it bends toward justice.”
Nicholas Burns is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics, and director of the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He served as under secretary of State for political affairs from 2005 to 2008. Previously, he was US ambassador to NATO.
This piece also appeared on the Power & Policy blog at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.