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Activist’s Escape Complicates Clinton’s China Visit

Filed by KOSU News in World News.
April 30, 2012

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sets off Monday night on a trip that was supposed to be a routine checkup on U.S.-China relations. Instead, she is flying into a firestorm after a high-profile dissident’s daring escape from house arrest. The blind legal activist, Chen Guangcheng, is now said to be under U.S. protection — and diplomats are scrambling to try to resolve the issue quickly and quietly.

On her first visit to China as secretary of state in 2009, Clinton downplayed human rights issues.

“We have to continue to press them, but our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises,” she said.

This time around, human rights issues will certainly “interfere” with Clinton’s agenda. And they should, says Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican of New Jersey.

“My hope is that this week will be a game changer for the administration, which has been very weak and enabling of the Chinese dictatorship,” Smith says. “You know, hope springs eternal — this is the week to make a difference and be very strong with Chen Guangcheng.”

To the New Jersey congressman, the timing of Chen’s escape was ideal, with so many high-level Obama administration officials descending on the Chinese capital for the strategic and economic dialogue.

“Chen couldn’t have chosen a better time to make his escape and to bring attention to himself, his family and the human rights abuse that he so courageously fought against which is forced abortion and forced sterilization,” Smith says. “That’s why the book was thrown at him by the dictatorship with such harshness because he dared to speak out against this abuse of women.”

While the Obama administration has raised concerns about Chen’s harsh treatment under house arrest in the past, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland had little comment on the subject Monday — despite repeated questioning — aside from confirming that the assistant secretary of state for Asia, Kurt Campbell, went to Beijing over the weekend.

Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center, says Campbell is trying to resolve Chen’s case quickly.

“Keep in mind [Chen] wants to stay in China and is seeking from the Chinese government at the center an investigation of the local authorities who have been abusing him so badly,” Lieberthal says.

A more likely outcome, though, Lieberthal says, is asylum, but much will depend on politics in Beijing.

“To me, the worse possible outcome here would be the Chinese neither are prepared to guarantee the safety of Chen Guangcheng and his family in China nor are willing to let us to get him to the airport and get him out of China,” Lieberthal says. “In which case we’ve got a long-term resident in U.S. facilities and we have a long-term major irritant in our bilateral relationship.”

Lieberthal is sympathetic to Clinton’s approach to human rights issues in the past, trying to keep them separate from other tough issues, and he says this week’s agenda is already “very full and serious.”

“This meeting may test that proposition whether you can keep each of these in their own category, so that problems in any one area don’t undermine your ability to deal with the others because all are very consequential,” he says.

Smith, the New Jersey congressman, though, say the Obama administration should ignore diplomatic niceties this week and make Chen’s case the priority.

“This is not just a test for [Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao], who talks about the rule of law and reform, ut it is also a test for this administration, which has been AWOL on human rights vis a vis Cina for the last three-and-a-half years,” Smith says.

President Obama says his administration brings up human rights issues at every chance. But he, too, declined to speak about Chen’s case Monday. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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