Skip to main content

Did Obama betray a Chinese hero?

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
May 3, 2012 -- Updated 0940 GMT (1740 HKT)
Human rights activist Chen Guangcheng appearing in a YouTube video after he escaped from house arrest.
Human rights activist Chen Guangcheng appearing in a YouTube video after he escaped from house arrest.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest
  • Frida Ghitis: He sought help from U.S. embassy, but now it seems he is being abandoned
  • She says deal the U.S. and China made over Chen appears to go counter to his wish
  • Ghitis: Obama needs to stand up for Chen and the universal value of human rights

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television."

(CNN) -- When the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng staged his astonishing escape from house arrest, he sought American protection at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Six days later, when Chen left the embassy for a local hospital, it looked as if U.S. officials had found a solution that, as the State Department put it, "reflected his choices and our values."

One official at the U.S. Embassy said Chen was so grateful for America's help that he told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the phone, "I would like to kiss you."

But the picture is starting to change, with signs emerging that the Obama administration failed to effectively protect Chen.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

Did the United States betray the Chinese human rights lawyer?

The United States said a deal with China would set Chen free and allow him to relocate within the country along with his family and attend a university. But Chen has told CNN that the U.S. government let him down. The United States insists the activist left the diplomatic compound willingly and wanted to remain in China. However, Chen said he fears for his life, his wife's safety and wants to leave the country. More troubling, he claims that U.S. officials, instead of extending their protection, pressured him to leave the safety of the embassy.

Chen Guangcheng: I want to leave China
Escaping China: Then and now
Chen's impact on U.S.-China ties
China censors 'AC360' Chen coverage

If this is true, it is a dark mark of shame for the United States. Until now, President Obama had a mixed record on human rights. This was an important test for an administration that has favored pragmatism over emotionally satisfying displays.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion

Chen's unexpected request for shelter at the U.S. Embassy created a terrible dilemma for Washington. Months ago, Clinton had already spoken on his behalf, as human rights groups characterized his detention as wholly illegal.

But Chen's escape to the U.S. Embassy came at the worst possible moment, with Clinton about to visit Beijing for high level meetings on other crucial issues.

America's relationship with China is complicated, to put it mildly. The United States needs Beijing's cooperation on Iran and North Korea. China is one of America's top trading partners and its top creditor.

The Chinese government does not take well to lectures on human rights, saying that they are a hypocritical construct of the West and are used for political purposes. Even if the issue has merit, Beijing says, it would be an internal matter; none of America's business.

Chen, who has been blind since childhood, is a self-taught lawyer. He became a fierce advocate for the poor and disabled and gained attention when he exposed abuses of China's one-child policy, uncovering the brutality of lower level officials who carried out forced abortions and sterilizations on thousands of poor Chinese women. Initially, Beijing heard his case and even arrested some of the offenders. But Chen said Beijing's actions amounted to very little. As his international profile rose and he redoubled his commitment to empower the people before the government, Chinese authorities turned against him.

In 2006, the Chinese government sent Chen to prison on charges that he disrupted traffic and damaged property, charges that he denies. After he left prison four years later, he and his family were placed under harsh house arrest. Human rights groups say they endured daily beatings and a near-starvation diet.

On April 29, under cover of darkness, Chen climbed the wall that had been built around his house. His blindness meant the dark gave him an advantage over the scores of security personnel that kept watch over him. He had led his captors to believe he was ill, and they lowered their guard even more.

Once over the wall, a network of activists helped him, with one of them, He Peirong, driving him 300 miles to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. She is now under arrest.

When President Obama was asked about Chen, he said he was aware of the situation but refused to address it, saying only, "Every time we meet with China the issue of human rights comes up."

Obama disappointed human rights activists early in his administration when, for example, he resisted coming out strongly in support of pro-democracy activists in Iran, claiming it would not be helpful to "meddle" when hundreds of thousands took to the streets. He was criticized for canceling a meeting with the Dalai Lama, and after he finally met him, for having him leave through a back door to lower the profile of the meeting, in order to sooth China. His continuing support for some dictatorships and tepid, inconsistent positions on the Arab uprisings have also spurred criticism.

At the same time, his pragmatic diplomacy appears to have borne fruit, most notably in Myanmar. And human rights activists say he has come a long way since his earlier stumbles.

The Chen case, however, could become iconic. If the Obama administration cannot explain what went wrong, it will have opened itself to criticism from human rights advocates and from Republican rivals, that he badly fumbled.

The Chinese government has demanded an apology from Washington for helping Chen and for interfering in Chinese domestic affairs. But the Obama administration, which claimed it had stayed true to American values in the Chen case, needs to prove that it has the moral strength to stand up for one courageous individual who sought help.

This is not just about Chen. It is about universal principles of human rights, really, and about America's willingness to defend them on the global stage. The whole world is watching.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT