The Obama administration has demonstrated a lack of commitment to human rights in the debacle surrounding the guarantee-less release of blind Chinese lawyer and activist Chen Guangcheng.
On April 29, Chen escaped his home in Shandong, where he and his family were being held under brutal extralegal house arrest since 2010. Later that week, he covertly arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to seek protection — it is important to note that he did not request asylum. Headlines proclaimed that a thankful Chen wanted to kiss Hillary Clinton, (who was in town for China-US Strategic and Economic Talks,) when he met her for the first time.
On May 2, the United States returned Chen to Chinese custody, with the Chinese government apparently promising Chen medical treatment and the chance to study law.
Unfortunately, the situation quickly devolved. Immediately after his release, Twitter and Weibo reports said that the Chinese government had threatened Chen’s family; the threats had been relayed to him at the U.S. Embassy. The Chinese government has also taken several activists that have helped Chen into custody, such as Pearl He, the woman who drove him to Beijing. Social media is buzzing with rumors that higher-up officials are now stationed outside Chen’s home in Shandong, waiting for his return.
Chen has given several interviews stating that he felt pressured to leave the embassy; that he had been lied to; and that he would like to go to the United States after all. Beijing has given no public guarantees for Chen’s safety. The U.S. Embassy has not set out designated guarantees for his safety, instead hoping that the media will follow up on his case. Human Rights Watch has deemed the protection "insufficient" to protect him and his family from continued harassment.
To embarrass the U.S. even more, Beijing has demanded that the Obama administration apologize for interfering in its “internal affairs.” This is horrific for the administration: it has clearly given up its human rights stance in favor of continuing talks. Artist and activist Ai Weiwei said, "It's obviously a business transaction," implying that the U.S. has traded its moral ground for successful dialogue.
Beijing has broadcast its apology demands throughout its state-owned media, and has made the U.S. seem even weaker in the face of Beijing's economic might and growing international influence. After the Bo Xilai scandal sparked destabilization rumors, the Chen situation is a welcome opportunity for Beijing to reassert its power.
Probable Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, will undoubtedly have a field day over Chen's fate. It will probably become part of Romney's “get tough on China” stance ahead of the November election. This position is in connection with arguments that the U.S., under President Obama, cannot stand up for human rights, freedom of speech, and other “American” values.
The U.S. Embassy has long been the safest place for Chinese dissidents to seek protection, proved after scholar Fan Lizhi famously lived there for 13 months following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Though Chen’s situation is ambiguous, the Obama administration did not seek the proper guarantees for his safety, especially if the U.S. Embassy was aware of the threats towards his family. Embassy officials have tried to contact Chen, but it may be too late.
Beijing is the clear winner here: it has proved the United States’ lack of conviction regarding human rights issues, and it has Chen and his supporters completely at its mercy.