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Second-guessing the administration's Chen Guangcheng policy

May 04, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • Tina Whittington of Students for Life of America, left, and the Rev. Pat Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition pray in front of the White House.
Tina Whittington of Students for Life of America, left, and the Rev. Pat… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )

Here's a question for all you armchair secretaries of State: What would you do if a blind Chinese dissident escapes house arrest and shows up at the American embassy in Beijing?

The Obama administration was roundly panned by Republicans and human-rights activists this week for a deal it brokered with Chinese authorities on behalf of Chen Guangcheng, the aforementioned blind dissident. Under that deal, which Chen supposedly endorsed, the activist would have been allowed to leave his home in Shandong province, where he'd been detained, to attend a Chinese university.

Shortly after being taken by U.S. authorities from the embassy to a hospital in Beijing and reuniting with his family, Chen said he didn't want to stay in China after all. Ooops! Defenders of the administration say Chen changed his mind; critics say the White House tried to rush Chen into a deal so his situation wouldn't cloud the annual meeting between top U.S. and Chinese officials that began Thursday in the Chinese capital.

The low point for the administration came Thursday, when Chen spoke via cellphone (and translator) at a congressional hearing on his situation. He said he wanted to come to the United States "to rest," and that he wanted to discuss his case directly with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The information dribbling out about the episode makes the administration look inept, particularly the fact that American officials left Chen alone in the hospital "to ponder the sincerity of promises reportedly made by a regime that has so far reacted to his human rights activism with detention and beatings of his family members and supporters," as Carol J. Williams of The Times' foreign desk so elegantly put it. Nevertheless, this may be a story that ends well; Chinese and U.S. officials have reportedly worked out a new deal that would allow Chen and his family to travel to a U.S. university for a (temporary) fellowship and medical treatment.

Now, back to the question at the top of this post. China is the most important, and most frustrating, frenemy the United States has in the world today. It routinely subverts U.S. diplomacy, such as the efforts to force Iran to abandon its nuclear-weapons program and to get Syria to change leadership. Its government appears to sponsor a relentless cyber attack aimed at stealing sensitive U.S. information. Its trade and currency policies, although not as antithetical to free markets as they used to be, still are skewed aggressively in favor of China's interests at the expense of the rest of the world's.

Ever since President Nixon's famous visit to the Middle Kingdom, though, U.S. presidents have tried to improve relations with China through engagement, not threats. Sure, they've threatened the occasional trade sanction, but they've largely made complaints about individual issues, be they human rights or the theft of trade secrets, secondary to the larger goal of having China work constructively with the rest of the developed world on issues of mutual importance.

Has that worked? China is clearly a more open nation than it used to be, and less antagonistic toward capitalism. But no one would mistake it for a free society in any sense of the word.

So, what would your priorities be as secretary of State? Human rights above all other things? Dissidents 'r' us? Or would you draw the line at angering the very Chinese officials you're trying to persuade to stop buying oil from Iran? Leave a comment below!

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