In a perfect world, everyone would share an ability to speak their piece without fear of government reprisal.But, as it is routinely — and correctly — pointed out, we live far from a perfect world. Light years away, in fact, if a perfect world even exists in our universe.
So, what we are left with is to make the best we can with what we have to work with. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration, along with the Chinese government and one very well known Chinese activist, are relearning that lesson. The affair has reached a tentative conclusion, though events of this nature are never a sure thing and the whole deal could very well have fallen apart between the time these words were typed and the time you are reading them.
The case in question involves a blind self-taught Chinese lawyer named Chen Guangcheng, who has become a symbol of the civil rights movement in that nation. Chen has suffered through seven years of prison and house arrest for exposing the fact that China forces women to undergo abortions and sterilization in order to enforce its one-child policy.
But what really caught national attention with Chen, however, was the intrigue surrounding his escape from local-level authorities in China last week. The nighttime adventure ended up with Chen seeking sanctuary in the U.S. Embassy, just ahead of a visit by Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
To put it plainly, everyone was in a bit of a fix at that point. China — which has a civil rights record that can be succinctly summed up in two words: Tiananmen Square — accused the United States of interfering with its internal affairs, but the Obama administration couldn’t very well abandon a civil rights leader, leaving him to more abuse. With China shoveling money into the U.S. to allow Washington to continue spending like drunken sailors on shore leave and the U.S. buying the products that keeps China’s economy going, dealing with the escape had plenty of implications even before you factor in the need for the two countries to work together in dealing with loose cannon nations Iran and North Korea.
The situation was one that neither the Obama administration, which would face criticism back home regardless of the outcome because it is an election year, nor the Chinese government, which hates for world attention to focus on its abysmal human rights record, wanted to drag out. Clinton showed some diplomatic savvy in conducting low-visibility negotiations and in working out a new solution when Chen, who had agreed to stay in China, did a 180 and demanded to be allowed to go to America.
On Friday, a new tentative deal was announced. Chen, his wife and their two children would be allowed to go to America, where he will take up an academic fellowship.
As a result, the U.S. gets to say it stood up for human rights, China gets a touchy issue behind it that was liable to inflame both hard-core communist leaders and reformers the longer it lingered. Chen and his family get a new start.
But there are losers as well. Chen has an older brother and a nephew who are still missing. His extended family and the people who supported him could face retaliation from the Chinese government. The woman who helped Chen make his break for the American embassy is unlikely to fare well in the aftermath of all this.
The ending may well have been the most pragmatic one, but for those Chen left behind, it was far from a perfect solution.