When it comes to the relationship between the United States and China, the case of activist Chen Guangcheng should not be disregarded, because protecting human rights is part of U.S. foreign policy. China’s importance to our country in matters of trade and finance makes it necessary to use a good dose of pragmatism, but not to betray our principles.
Chen, a renowned blind lawyer who advocated for the rights of the disabled, got in trouble with local authorities when he criticized the mandatory abortions and sterilizations that are part of the one-child-per-family demographic policy. He was in prison for four years and under house arrest for 19 months.
Chen escaped his house arrest, taking refuge at the U.S. Embassy days before an annual meeting between top U.S. and Chinese officials to discuss trade and finance.
The embassy negotiated a deal to have Chen leave the diplomatic facility in exchange for a promise he would be respected. Chen felt pressured by news that his family would be sent far away if he remained in the embassy’s grounds. After being taken to the hospital to treat an injury sustained during his escape, Chen surprised everyone by asking to be taken to the U.S.
Many times, we have said Cuba is not China, in response to calls for the United States to apply its human rights policy uniformly across the board. The differences regarding the significance of the relationship between the countries are obvious, but not enough to ignore the suffering of people under an anti-democratic regime. Chen is a powerful symbol of this undeniable reality.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Chen’s release reflected “his choices and our values.” It’s hard to believe that one of our values is trusting frantic negotiations and vague promises about protecting a human rights activist made by a government that systematically violates those rights.
The relationship with China is complicated, as it involves dependence and rivalry at the same time. The common geopolitical reality between the two countries, which includes North Korea, Iran, trade and finance, calls for being pragmatic without betraying our values. That’s where the challenge lies.