Beijing’s agreement to release Chen Guangcheng is a success for the U.S.

Beijing’s agreement to release Chen Guangcheng is a success for the U.S.

Today’s agreement in Beijing for Chen Guangcheng to leave the U.S. embassy yet remain in China heralds a success for the Obama administration’s diplomacy, and for the cause of human rights in China. While there were no ideal solutions, this seems to be the best possible one, and was probably agreed to only with great reluctance by the Chinese government. Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and one of the Obama administration’s most capable senior officials, served as the lead negotiator and merits particular credit. The pressures on the case were heightened by the imminent arrival in Beijing of Secretaries Clinton and Geithner for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED), one of the most important events on the U.S.-China calendar and a cornerstone of the complex bilateral relationship.

Yet in this case Campbell and his fellow negotiators (including State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh and U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke) appear to have leveraged the SED to their advantage based on the strategic insight that China needs the SED more than the U.S. does. This may be sound counter-intuitive, given the many issues on which the U.S. has important "asks" of China, including pressure on the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, currency reform, and maritime rights in the western Pacific. But China has been buffeted and embarrassed in recent months by the revelations of the Bo Xilai case, the tensions surrounding its upcoming leadership transition, and the growing alienation of many of its neighboring countries. Beijing needs a smooth and successful SED to help restore its image, and hence realized that it needed to compromise to achieve a quick resolution to the Chen case. Shadow Government’s uber-boss, FP editor-in-chief Susan Glasser, is accompanying Secretary Clinton’s delegation to Beijing and filed a thoughtful account that lays out the difficult balancing act and frailties in the deal.

Earlier this week it seemed likely that Beijing would only agree to Chen’s release if he left China for asylum in the U.S. Yet this would not have been the best outcome, given that Chen would be separated from his family and no longer able to continue his activism. This recent story tells of the anonymity and ennui that afflicts many Chinese dissidents once settled in the U.S., a sad trajectory that might have been Chen’s as well. Yet such is not always the case, as other Chinese dissidents have found the U.S. a congenial home from which to continue their advocacy. Such is the case with Bob Fu, now based in Midland, Texas, and whose connection to Chen included assistance with Chen’s initial escape and eloquent advocacy on his behalf with the U.S. media. Bob’s compelling story can be viewed here at the Bush Center’s Freedom Collection.

The Chen case also occurs against the backdrop of a fascinating and largely ennobling history of dissidents in repressive countries seeking refuge in U.S. embassies. Early in the Cold War, the Catholic anticommunist leader Cardinal Josef Mindszenty of Hungary fled to the embassy in Budapest and lived there for 15 (yes, 15) years. The seven Siberian Pentecostals lived in the U.S. embassy in Moscow for 5 years until the Soviet Union agreed to their release after consistent pressure from President Reagan. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese dissidents Fang Lizhi and his wife Li Shuxian lived in the embassy in Beijing for 13 months. In each of these cases, the presence of the dissidents on U.S. diplomatic soil proved to be an irritant in the bilateral relationship — in the short-term. But from a long-term perspective, it becomes clear that the protection offered by U.S. embassies proved a potent demonstration of America’s commitment to liberty. It is a telling reminder that, for all of America’s imperfections and internal challenges, our nation is still seen by freedom activists across the globe as the world’s premier symbol of liberty and power. It is this combination of values and strength that explains why dissidents in authoritarian countries consistently seek out the American embassy for succor and support.

Yet these same dissidents often carry outsized and unrealistic expectations of just how much the United States can do on their behalf. As powerful as the U.S. is, there are profound limits on America’s ability to reshape conditions within other countries, and particularly to guarantee the safety and freedom of dissidents. Here is where the Chen agreement seems to have accomplished about as much as it can. The Chinese government promises to allow Chen to seek medical treatment, enroll in law school, and be reunited with his family. But as an informal agreement between two sovereign states, there is no enforcement mechanism beyond the investment of U.S. prestige and credibility, and China’s desire to maintain a good relationship. Still, all things considered, Chen’s lot is much improved from just two weeks ago, when he languished under de facto house arrest (no doubt with Beijing’s approval). He now enjoys even more global prominence, the explicit support of the United States, an opportunity to gain formal legal training, and most crucially, the chance to continue his work on behalf of his fellow citizens. Moreover, the issues to which he has dedicated his life — freedom of expression, religious freedom, an end to forced abortions and sterilizations, respect for rule of law — are now thrust back into the international spotlight and the agenda of the U.S.-China relationship.

The Chen situation is much more than an isolated human rights case. His life and work symbolizes the powerful contradictions besetting China: a strong state whose government seems to fear a blind self-taught country lawyer; an economic powerhouse whose overall growth still produces resentments, instabilities, and unmet expectations from many of its citizens; an emerging yet brittle superpower whose greatest strength may be found not in its growing military or economy, but in the courage of ordinary citizens like Chen Guangcheng.