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As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads to China this week for yearly strategic consultations, a daring bid for political asylum has highlighted the seething dissent beneath China’s surface stability.
The dramatic news that dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest and traveled clandestinely to seek refuge in America’s Beijing embassy is still rocking China. Chen’s journey captured worldwide media attention; his fate could have profound implications for China’s future domestically and for Sino-American affairs, this century’s most important bilateral relationship.
Chen opposes China’s notorious “one child per family” policy; he infuriated the country’s rulers by filing class actions on behalf of women involuntarily sterilized or forced to have abortions under the “one child” strictures.
President Obama’s response to Chen will set a tone in US-Chinese relations that could reverberate for years.
To date, his administration’s indifference to Beijing’s oppressive policies, as well as to (among other things) China’s implicit support for North Korean and Iranian nuclear proliferation, has simply encouraged Beijing’s belief that Washington would allow it a free hand.
In February 2009, on her first visit to China as secretary, Clinton was dismissive about Tibet, religious freedom and other human-rights issues: “We know what they are going to say, because I’ve had those kinds of conversations for more than a decade with Chinese leaders. 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 crisis.”
The Washington Post described her as “affect[ing] a world-weary air”; Clinton herself said she was merely “stating the obvious.” Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi responded that China was willing to discuss “human rights” on the “premise of mutual respect and noninterference in each other’s internal affairs.”
“Noninterference” will be essentially impossible for America if Chen formally applies for political asylum while inside our Beijing compound.
The cold, hard, inconvenient truth in international affairs is that human rights at times will be traded off for higher national interests. However unattractive it is to acknowledge that reality, it is certainly far better than simply giving the issue away, as Clinton did in 2009.
Meanwhile, the other big China story of recent months is challenging the received wisdom in US governmental and business circles that China is experiencing a “peaceful rise,” becoming a “responsible stakeholder” internationally. The apparent purge of Bo Xilai, former Communist Party supremo in Chongqing, also demonstrates major fault lines in China’s political structures.
This bizarre tale has already included Bo’s local police chief fleeing to the US consulate before being released into the custody of Beijing authorities and allegations of Bo’s wife’s involvement in murdering a British businessman.
Some characterize Bo as a Maoist throwback maneuvering unsuccessfully against the “reformers” now dominating the party’s higher ranks. Others see the affair as a classic power struggle among personally ambitious Communist leaders, with less ideological significance. Either way, Bo’s real crime, in the regime’s eyes, was plainly his seeking of popular support outside the existing leadership structures.
However this ongoing intraparty contest turns out, the undeniable open warfare underlines that China’s internal political direction is far less certain than the apostles of “peaceful rise” would have us believe.
Indeed, the last several decades of our feckless acquiescence to Beijing’s growing economic clout have made the situation worse. Fears among US business and political elites that standing up for US interests would only rile China and worsen relations to our detriment have simply empowered the most aggressive and authoritarian instincts of an already aggressive and authoritarian Communist and military leadership.
Chen’s asylum case will almost certainly affect the outcome of the political struggles exemplified by Bo Xilai’s fall.
While America may be unable to exert a decisive influence either on China’s future domestic affairs or its external behavior, we should not be ambiguous here. We should grant Chen asylum, insist that his family in China be protected, speak out against the “one child” policy and much, much more.
America must not be a well-bred doormat on Chen’s asylum request or on any other bilateral issue with China.
John Bolton is a former US ambassador to the United Nations.
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