China and U.S. should avoid human rights fight

April 30, 2012

By John Foley

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

An escaped Chinese dissident takes refuge in the U.S. embassy. It’s a diplomatic crisis, but needn’t become an economic one. Washington values rights, but it also needs a stable and cooperative China. As for Beijing, it has a chance to improve its image.

Blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng’s escape from house arrest came just days before the U.S. and China’s annual economic summit in Beijing. In a year of political transition for both sides, things could escalate. China hates foreign meddling; the United States has accepted high profile defectors before. Though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton favours “principled pragmatism”, she is an outspoken critic of China’s human rights record – and of Chen’s plight.

But a deep freeze between the world’s two biggest economies would be bad for the world. Besides, there is a deep economic co-dependency. While China’s overall trade surplus has been shrinking, the trade gap with Uncle Sam has actually widened. It hit a record $299 billion in the 12 months to February 2012, Reuters data shows.

A face-saving solution is certainly possible. If Beijing gives Chen some guarantees that he and his family will be left alone, he could return to his Shandong village. There are precedents: Lai Changxing, a ringleader in a notorious corruption ring, was extradited from Canada on the promise that he wouldn’t be put to death. Beijing could even blame Chen’s captivity on wayward local officials, and burnish its own credentials for upholding the rule of law.

The Chinese approach to human rights will remain a political challenge. More asylum-seekers in the United States come from China than from any other country, and the number of petitioners has been growing at a double digit-rate. By Western standards, Beijing still lags in the protection of its citizens.

Still, Western governments can’t easily back off from the bet they made a decade ago, when China was admitted to the World Trade Organisation – the step that kicked off its latest prodigious phase of growth. They decided then that China would become less repressive as it got richer. Chen’s case may show whether that judgment was the right one.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Mr. Foley, you are well advised to look into the role of US-sponsored NGO in Chen’s flight to US embassy, as our supposedly independent media has collectively ignored this.

Both Hu Jia, and Bob Fu of China Aid, two parties involved in Chen’s flight, have received substantial funding via National Endowment for Democracy grants over the years.

China Aid even manufactured false religious persecution charge against China, when the fact is The Three Grades of Servants cult was involved in a bloody turf war over church membership and it’s leaders subsequently tried for murder.

Posted by ChasLSeattle | Report as abusive

Let them fight, fight and fight!

You will never know who will win at the end.

Let’s face the bloody reality: people will never understand each other; they will never tolerant the other’s way of behave.

So, why not let them fight with each other.

Posted by JoeAlpha100 | Report as abusive

TPicking44 wrote:
I’m ashamed to be a US citizen. We condemn China for returning North Korean refugees to face certain punishment and/or death, yet we threw Mr. Chen to the wolves just to make Hillary Clinton’s trip a little less awkward.

This makes us no better than the murderous Chinese government that we turned that poor man over to.

Posted by TPicking44 | Report as abusive