Beacon No More? America Abandons Chen Guangcheng

The U.S. left an injured blind man in the custody of his totalitarian oppressors, writes Kirsten Powers.

Kin Cheung / AP Photo

Does the United States still stand as a beacon of hope to the oppressed around the world? Human-rights lawyer and Chinese folk hero Chen Guangcheng thought we did. That’s why he risked his life to get to the United States Embassy in Beijing. But it was there he was betrayed for a few trillion shekels of yuan.

Human-rights activists around the world rejoiced when Chen—blind since birth—managed to escape house arrest and reach the perceived safety of the embassy. That relief turned to shock six days later, when the United States pressured Chen to leave, promising that they would stay with him in the hospital as he received treatment for injuries sustained during his escape.

Yet, Chen told CNN that once he reached the hospital the U.S. officials disappeared. Remember: he’s blind. The U.S. Embassy staff left an injured blind man who is an enemy of the state in the custody of his totalitarian oppressors. The State Department said today that the U.S. government has been in contact with Chen by phone and hopes to have a face-to-face meeting with him. So, they went from having him on American soil (the embassy) to not able to see him.

If only this was just incompetence. It seems so much worse.

Chai Ling, a former Tiananmen Square leader who escaped China in a cargo box, told me in an interview: “The U.S. Embassy wanted this ‘distraction’ to go away so they could get on with their business [of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to China].” In other words, trade and economic deals couldn’t be hampered by a human-rights nuisance. In Ling’s testimony before Congress today on behalf of her organization All Girls Allowed, which fights China’s one-child policy, she called America’s treatment of Chen “shameful.”

Now, Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner are in China with this cloud of shame hanging over them. Every statement from the U.S. government has attempted to sell the implausible story that Chen chose to return to his captors. In a briefing from Beijing today, a Senior State Department spokesperson said that, “it was our agreement with the Chinese that they would do a full battery of physical tests today given concerns about the mistreatment and abuse he had had for months and years, and the need to do a full workup on him."

Who was responsible for the “mistreatment and abuse”? That would be the very government to which the U.S. Embassy handed Chen over. “Not only does the Chinese government have an appalling track record on human rights,” said Human Rights Watch Director Sophie Richardson in a statement, “but Chen himself has also already reported receiving threats to his family’s safety by government officials and fearing for his and their security.”

“Chen is revered and so loved in China,” Reggie Littlejohn, founder of the China-focused human-rights group Women Without Frontiers, told me. “When he got into embassy, so many people felt he was safe and they really felt it was the safest place in China. So now the embassy has done this and it has really shaken people's trust in the U.S. We really completely botched it.”

The Chinese people had a reason to expect the United States would offer a safe haven, because that’s exactly what they did in 1989 with Tiananmen Square leader Fang Li Zhi. The U.S. embassy protected Feng and his wife for a year and also negotiated for him to be re-united with his children. U.S. negotiations conducted by Henry Kissinger eventually meant that Fang and his family were able to leave China and finally settle in Arizona. So involved in the case was the U.S that, according to the Washington Post, Fang chose to go to the embassy “in the middle of the night after U.S. diplomats sent word that President George H.W. Bush had personally approved giving him, his wife and son, Fang De, sanctuary.”

Littlejohn told me, “When Chen was in the embassy he was there under U.S. protection. The logical response would be to bring whole family to the embassy.” Instead they pushed him out. Littlejohn says the only answer is for the U.S. to offer asylum to Chen, his family, and also the people who risked their lives to help him escape his house arrest.

Hillary Clinton has her work cut out for her now. Chen made a direct plea to her to take him and his family with her when she leaves.

If she leaves them behind, their blood will be on America’s hands.