America's open door to Chinese activist Chen

America's tradition of openness led Chen Guangcheng to knock on its embassy door. Now that openness may allow him to study in the US. The strength of many a country lies in being open to people, ideas, and technology.

US Embassy Beijing Press Office/AP Photo
Family members of Chen Guangcheng – wife Yuan Weijing, daughter Chen Kesi, and son Chen Kerui – pose May 2 in the US embassy in Beijing with Ambassador Gary Locke, crouching, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, back row left, and State Department legal advisor Harold Koh, right.

It is a measure of America’s openness to the world that Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng could have so easily entered the US Embassy in Beijing last month to flee his captors.

And now, to resolve the crisis, America is open to allowing Mr. Chen to study law at an American university and to bring his family with him.

As the world’s first truly global society, the United States stands out for its accepting nature of people, ideas, products, and investments from around the world. It is a childlike quality, based on curiosity, trust, and innocence. And it is not easily quantified – although academics try hard to rank nations by their “openness gap.”

Chen would join the 4 percent of students in the US who are from other lands. Of all the world’s students who go abroad to earn a degree, the US commands by far the largest share, about 20 percent. That dominance is similar in trade, legal immigration, and many other measures. (France ranks first in tourist visits, with the US second.)

In 1979, when the Communist Party opened China to world trade – out of desperation after the Mao-era decline – its leader, Deng Xiaoping, toured the US. He often remarked about its openness – although he and those who followed him in the party did not allow much liberty back home.

Three decades later, however, an American president was allowed to give a public speech in Shanghai. President Obama’s theme in that 2009 talk? America’s respect for universal rights guides its openness to other countries.

And, he said, openness “means that we learn from different cultures and different foods and different ideas, and that has made us a much more dynamic society.” (He also promised to expand the number of students from China in the US to 100,000.)

For any country, such a welcoming attitude is a source of strength and replenishment. The mix of cultures and ideas can help a people and their economy better adapt to global markets.

The benefits to the US can be seen in Silicon Valley, where about half of the high-tech companies were started by either immigrants or first-generation American citizens. Or consider a high tally of foreign leaders educated in the US. “I can think of no more valuable asset to our country than the friendship of future world leaders who have been educated here,” said former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Two forces are pushing authoritarian regimes to slowly accept openness. One is the Internet, which defies secrecy of information. The other is corruption, which hinders economic progress.

China’s leaders are struggling with both. Its next party leader, Xi Jinping, once wrote in a local party newspaper that “transparency is the best anti-corrosive” against graft. But the party’s clampdown on the Internet, such as during the Chen incident, still shows a fear of being held accountable by the Chinese people.

Those Chinese able to learn of Chen’s easy entry into the US embassy and his expected education in the US likely marvel at this American generosity.

In the US, however, many people take it all for granted. Some even criticize Mr. Obama for not acting more quickly to assist Chen. But that sort of criticism is simply a given in an open society.

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