Paul Pillar

The Overblown Chen Case

Much commentary has been offered about Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and how U.S. officials have handled his case. It was inevitable that the Chen affair would become fodder in the U.S. election campaign. But many commentators beyond those motivated primarily by partisanship have devoted attention to this affair as if it were some kind of test or touchstone for the policies and strategies of the Obama administration. Additional perspective is in order, for which I offer the following observations.

First, the United States does not own the issue of human rights in China. Yet many of the comments about Chen's status and similar cases sound as if it does. It is almost as if the United States had the special responsibility of a former colonial master, which of course it does not. To regard human rights as an important value and to incorporate it into U.S. foreign policy is one thing; to bear the burden of owning the issue as it relates to China or any other foreign country is something quite different. Denial of human rights, insofar as it is a concern for those outside China, is a concern for the entire world community. It is no more logical for the United States to bear a special burden stemming from that concern than it would be for, say, Japan to bear it. It may seem that the United States bears a special burden because dissidents have a habit of showing up at the doorsteps of U.S. embassies. (Walter Pincus recalls in Tuesday's Washington Post the details of a similar incident with another Chinese dissident in 1989.) Americans should feel flattered that their embassies are picked out over other embassies, but they should feel no need to respond by taking up sole ownership of the case at hand out of some sense of human-rights noblesse oblige.

A second point concerns the role of Chen himself. He certainly offers much to admire, including his open advocacy of honorable causes even when doing so guaranteed he would run afoul of Chinese authorities. His physical image, with his visual disability and then a fracture in a foot sustained while he was fleeing house arrest at night, add further elements of sympathy and even mystique. There is no denying, however, that much of what made this case a frustrating no-win situation for U.S. officials stemmed from Chen himself and the choices he made. Beyond his showing up at the U.S. embassy, this particularly involved his change of mind regarding whether or not he wanted to leave China. This is someone who is asking favors from the United States, but he has done the United States no favors. The affair would have been much simpler if he had asked for asylum as soon as he first met with U.S. officials. Given that the whole story would have been significantly different if this one dissident had made different personal choices, how can we say that the story says much about the U.S. administration?

Third, how U.S. officials handle any matters such as this—and despite the publicity in this instance, it is basically a difficult consular case—rarely says anything larger about the direction and policy of an American administration. The officials involved are endeavoring to manage a situation that has been thrown in their laps without advance notice or preparation. Every case is different, and the handling of any one case is not an application of strategic tenets in Washington. A single case of this nature does not provide any larger lessons about how foreign policy is being run unless it is representative of a dysfunctional pattern such as subjugating competence to political loyalty in the appointment of officials or misinterpreting a situation by viewing it through ideological lenses—but no such pattern seems to apply to the current situation.

The Chen case says much more about China and its leadership than about the United States or its leaders. It is, after all, their country, their citizen and their suppression of civil rights that are involved. If the Chen affair presents a test, it is a test of the Chinese regime's ability to satisfy a growing popular demand for the rule of law notwithstanding the threat that consistent application of the law would pose to the regime's continued rule.