On her first visit to China in 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Chinese leaders that she considered human rights secondary to other, greater issues. “Our pressing on those issues can’t interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis,” she said. Have those words ever come back to bite her!
Over the past week, the case of blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng has exposed the Clinton–Obama foreign policy as few events ever have, and it has exposed it as either spineless or callous. The proud American legacy as a beacon of freedom has been shot through and through by the Obama Administration’s handling of Chen. After six days in the U.S. embassy in Beijing, Chen was returned to Chinese authorities, who even had the nerve to demand a U.S. apology. Returning Chen was necessary to smooth the path for Clinton’s visit Thursday and Friday.
The resolution of the case, announced proudly by the State Department today, has to be taken with a large dose of skepticism. Reportedly, Cheng has been offered a fellowship at New York University. According to State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, Chinese authorities have agreed to consider an application for him and his family to travel. “The Chinese Government stated today that Mr. Chen Guangcheng has the same right to travel abroad as any other citizen of China. Mr. Chen has been offered a fellowship from an American university, where he can be accompanied by his wife and two children,” she stated.
Not so fast. Having the “right” to travel and actually getting permission are two very different things. ”This matter has been handled in the spirit of a cooperative U.S.–China partnership,” Nuland said. Not reassuring.
Unfortunately, Chen is not the first activist to be downgraded by the Obama Administration in favor of state-to-state relations and alleged cooperation on larger global issues. Iranian demonstrators who took to the streets of Tehran in June of 2009 looked in vain for support from Washington. So did Syrians, under daily attack by their own regime. It is a sad day when human rights defenders cannot look to the United States for protection, but that day has indeed arrived. Even if Cheng and his family arrive safely in New York (a very big if), the next Administration will have a lot of repair work to do on America’s standing in the world.