The Obama administration's deal with the Chinese government over the blind lawyer-activist Chen Guangcheng initially appeared to be a diplomatic triumph, but now has turned into a serious test. The question is why.
Based on the information available at the time, I initially thought the deal was a success, as I wrote here. This was because it appeared to honor Chen's desire to stay in China, and it appeared to represent a dual set of commitments: by the Chinese Government to respect China's rights, and by the Obama administration to hold Beijing to the agreement. Unfortunately neither of those commitments has been fulfilled. The Chinese government is most to blame. It has brazenly targeted Chen and his family members, supporters, and fellow activists, to the point that he has now reversed course, and as he told a Congressional hearing yesterday, he is now seekign to leave China for the U.S. However, the Obama administration appears to have made some significant missteps as well.
In breaking this agreement with the U.S. in such a public, defiant manner, China is also questioning the credibility of the Obama administration. This was of course not a confrontation that the administration sought, focused as it was on the now-dashed hopes for a smooth Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Yet this is the test that China has presented. Signature moments in foreign policy are often not the carefully-crafted pageantry of summit meetings but the unexpected crises that test presidential leadership.
Here is where the Obama administration seems to be wanting. For all of the diplomatic skill initially shown by the U.S. negotiators, at the end of the day China's commitment to the agreement depended on their perception of how much it mattered to the top American leadership, especially Secretary Clinton and President Obama. Secretary Clinton erred in not demanding a personal meeting with Chen as soon as she landed in Beijing, as a way to show her investment in his welfare. Embassy Beijing erred by not keeping embassy officers with Chen at the hospital, at least for the duration of the SED.
While I am not privy to any personal communications that President Obama may have had with Chinese president Hu Jintao on the case, the White House's apparent silence has been telling and perhaps constitutes the biggest error. The Chinese government seems to have read this as a sign of lack of U.S. resolve, and made the calculation that it could break the agreement and resume tormenting Chen and his family without incurring any costs from the U.S.
What could President Obama have done? He should have communicated to Beijing his personal interest in Chen's welfare and made clear that any violation of the agreement would have severe repercussions for the U.S.-China relationship. The specifics of such repercussions would not need to be specified, but options could include delaying or denying a state visit for Xi Jinping once he takes power after the leadership transition this fall.
There is some precedent for this approach. As I shared in a radio interview yesterday, in 2007 President Bush arranged to meet at the White House with three prominent Chinese human rights and religious freedom advocates who were visiting the U.S. for a short time and then planned on returning to China. (As a sidenote, the Chinese activists were in the U.S. for a series of legal advocacy seminars organized by the irrepressible Bob Fu, whose own life shows that Chinese dissidents who find asylum in the U.S. can still have a substantial influence).
The morning of the meeting, the Chinese government sent an ominous threat to the White House saying that if these activists returned to China their safety could not be guaranteed. In other words, they faced the prospect of imprisonment or worse. We informed the dissidents of the threat against them and told them that the decision on whether or not to have the meeting was up to them; after saying a prayer, each one remained resolved to do so. Then President Bush had a senior NSC official send a back channel message to the Chinese government saying in no uncertain terms that President Bush took personal interest in the welfare of these three dissidents and that any harm befalling them would cause a severe disruption in U.S.-China relations. After Bush met with them, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing sent staff to meet the dissidents at the airport in Beijing when they returned, made sure they returned safely to their homes, and kept in regular contact with them. And for the duration of the Bush administration they were left alone (for more on this meeting, see Mike Gerson's book Heroic Conservatism).
Thus far President Obama has not even commented publicly on Chen's case, despite Chen's own pleas that Obama do so, and despite the Chinese government's brazen challenge to Obama's credibility. As of this writing, a way forward seems to be emerging for Chen and his family to come to the U.S. and pursue legal studies. For this deal to work, the Obama administration needs to recapture the initiative and craft the agreement in terms that make clear its commitment to the many other Chinese human rights activists who have been targeted for their support of Chen. And when Chen arrives in the U.S., President Obama should invite him to the White House for a personal meeting.
The plight of a fugitive blind Chinese legal activist was no doubt not where President Obama expected to face a serious foreign policy test, especially during a week that his campaign tried to devote to chest-thumping on the anniversary of the Osama bin Laden operation. How Obama responds now will determine much about the near-term future of U.S.-China relations. And while investing a president's reputational capital is always a risky move, it is not as risky as trusting the assurances of the Chinese Communist Party.