American embassy officials in Beijing didn't exactly throw out the welcome mat when one of China's leading human rights activists showed up on their doorstep last week seeking refuge. But having allowed him inside and sheltered him for several days while they negotiated his fate with Chinese authorities, the U.S. made itself responsible for his safety, and it must honor that commitment even though he is no longer under the embassy's protection.
Chen Guangcheng, a blind, self-taught lawyer and fierce critic of China's forced-abortion policy, told officials he had traveled 400 miles to Beijing after escaping de facto house arrest in a provincial town. Advised that if he sought political asylum in the U.S. he might spend years cooped up inside the embassy before he could depart and be reunited with his family, he agreed to leave after diplomats assured him they had secretly worked out a deal with Chinese officials that would allow him and his family to remain safely in the country.
There is some dispute over whether Mr. Chen's decision to quit the embassy was entirely voluntary or whether he was pressured to go in order to avoid a messy diplomatic crisis on the eve of the arrival of a high-level U.S. delegation led by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Embassy officials strenuously deny Mr. Chen was coerced and insist it was his choice to stay in China.
What no one disputes is that the agreement between the U.S. and China over what would happen to Mr. Chen broke down almost immediately. Soon after embassy personnel dropped him off at hospital for treatment of an injury suffered during his escape, Mr. Chen telephoned friends that government security police had surrounded the building and that his wife, who met him there, told him she and other family members were being threatened and harassed. His lawyer says he now wants to come to the U.S. because he fears for his safety and that of his family. Meanwhile, China's foreign ministry has issued a strongly worded statement denouncing what it called U.S. interference in China's domestic affairs.
The case presents the administration with a delicate but potentially explosive diplomatic situation that will require the utmost finesse to resolve. It would be terrible for Mr. Chen's predicament to derail the mission of the American delegation that arrived in Beijing this week, or undermine an agenda that includes talks on China's monetary and trade policies, its oil purchases from Iran and its influence over North Korea's nuclear weapons program. All those issues could be pushed to the side if the dispute devolves into an angry public controversy over China's human rights record and its harsh treatment of political dissidents like Mr. Chen.
It's unfortunate that this issue has come up at a time when U.S.-China relations are already strained over a broad range of disagreements regarding trade and security. Yet the U.S. must remain firm in its commitment to human rights, however much China may insist that its internal affairs are none of our business. We need to make clear to the Chinese that we expect them to abide by the terms of the agreement they reached with us regarding Mr. Chen's status. Otherwise, how can we ever trust them to negotiate in good faith? They need to show us they can be trusted to keep their word, and if they are unwilling to do that, we should demand that Mr. Chen be allowed to return to our embassy immediately and stay there until the matter is resolved.