The Chen Guangcheng Deal
The dissident leaves the U.S. Embassy under murky circumstances.
WSJ Opinion, May3, 2012
This much is clear: Beijing reached an agreement Wednesday with the U.S. under which blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. Embassy. However, the details of the deal, including whether Mr. Chen was coerced to accept by Chinese threats to his family, remain murky.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Beijing for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks on Thursday, said that the outcome "reflected his choices and our values," and was based on "a number of understandings with the Chinese government."
There's good reason to doubt that Beijing will honor those understandings. While local authorities did the dirty work of keeping Mr. Chen under illegal house arrest in rural Shandong province, the central government was complicit. Nobody should be under the illusion that village thugs defied Beijing's wishes for 19 months. As one Chinese commentator put it, "No matter how strong Dongshigu Village is, it can't be stronger than [defrocked Bo Xilai's] Chongqing."
The good news is that Mr. Chen has occupied the moral high ground in China's public debate. The case hinges not only on universal concepts of human rights, but also the Chinese government's failure to follow its own laws. The persecution of a blind man and his innocent family exposed the Communist Party's mafia mentality of attacking anyone who dares to challenge its injustice.
This deal, flawed as it may be, should at least improve Mr. Chen's living conditions for a time, and it allows the U.S. to take an ongoing interest in his welfare. American concern should also focus on those who helped Mr. Chen escape his captors. Some have been detained, even though the police concede they broke no laws.
The Chinese government Wednesday deflected attention from Mr. Chen's mistreatment by criticizing the U.S. for the "abnormal means" by which he entered the U.S. Embassy. A Foreign Ministry spokesman's demands for a U.S. investigation and apology, widely repeated in the state-run media, are transparent efforts to save face. Beijing is on the back foot as Mr. Chen is already one of the most effective activists in China on human rights and the rule of law. Now he will garner even more attention.
While this case is unusual, it sets an important precedent in U.S.-China relations. Nobody doubts the importance of U.S.-Chinese cooperation on a range of issues, but that cooperation becomes counterproductive when it comes at the expense of the core values America embodies and the Chinese people admire. As for Beijing, it will only take its place in the world as a respected power when it also honors those values—and its own laws.
A version of this article appeared May 3, 2012, on page A14 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Chen Guangcheng Deal.