The flight of dissident Chen Guangcheng from the confines of his house arrest, a stunning turn that has taken place shortly after the embarrassing purge of rabble-rouser Bo Xilai, is worthy of a spy thriller. Mr. Chen is a blind man dedicated to human rights. His crusade against forced sterilizations and abortions landed him in prison for five years. His escape from the "clutches" of abusive local authorities is testament to a clever resourcefulness that many, including Chinese, will applaud. The little guy has, for now, beaten a repressive system.
Our instincts are to cheer him on and use this case to dramatize the flagrant human rights abuses that occur in modern China. We expect our government to take a vigorous stand against the Chinese Communist Party.
However, we must not sensationalize this affair. If Chen's saga devolves into an "us versus them" clash of hegemonic resolve, it will affect America's relationship with China for years to come. Fortunately, at this early date, President Obama's under-the-radar modus operandi has been pitch perfect. According to John O. Brennan, the administration's top counter-terrorism adviser, Obama wants to achieve an "appropriate balance" (Chinese crave balance) between two seemingly incompatible objectives: defending universal rights and maintaining a constructive, forward-looking relationship with the Chinese government during a precarious leadership transition.
It should go without saying that robust ties with China are extremely important to 21st century prosperity. Our economies are already inextricably intertwined. The economic and industrial strengths of our nations are complementary, yin to each other's yang. Furthermore, a "paranoid" China, convinced the rest of the world wants to "contain" its rise, would harm geopolitical stability. From Syria to North Korea to Iran, progress in global hot spots will not be made without Chinese complicity. The United States, therefore, must avoid unnecessary provocation in resolving Mr. Chen's fate. Given the central government's extreme sensitivity to lost face, anything that smacks of grand standing could adversely affect long-term bilateral collaboration.
Of course, the president of the United States also has a moral obligation to fight for what's right. An inviolable belief that Everyman, irrespective of culture, has a right to be free from abuse by the powerful makes us who we are as a nation. Obama must not "back down."
So what should he do? Obama's decision not to make any public announcement regarding the whereabouts of Mr. Chen -- he is presumed to be in the U.S. embassy in Beijing -- is smart. His refusal to stand on a soapbox proclaiming the sanctity of human rights may not be satisfying to American audiences but has surely earned the appreciation of Beijing mandarins who have, by the way, also exhibited restraint. To date, the Chinese have not accused America of meddling. The strategic dialogue between Chinese leaders and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is still scheduled to take place later this week.
More fundamentally, Obama should do what he does best on the global stage: project principled, cool-headed pragmatism, a trait Chinese deeply admire. The administration must guide leaders to a win-win solution. Chinese culture is defined rooted in zhong yong, an ethos that equates progression with avoidance of extremes. America can assist Chinese leaders, currently disoriented by loss of control, by steering them towards balanced practicality. We should help them take refuge in technocratic rationalism by outlining cost-benefits analyses of different actions.
If calm heads prevail, the seeds of a solution may already be apparent. Per the New York Times:
"In an audacious video released Friday, Mr. Chen did not call for a change of government, but rather appealed to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to investigate and halt the abuse of his family. Other advocates who have spoken to him since he fled say he does not want asylum that would force him to leave China. That could create an opening for resolving a standoff with the United States... 'The [central] government doesn't have to take this as a threat,' a senior American official said Sunday, noting that Mr. Chen had not escaped from official detention, but rather from harassment at the hands of the local authorities."
Obama should leverage this episode to highlight dysfunctional aspects of the regime's unreformed "system." The Chinese people do not demand representative democracy but they do expect government -- at national and city levels - to be institutionally responsive to individual needs. Propaganda organs have explicitly and repeatedly acknowledged this truth as fundamental to the future prosperity. The ham-handed abuse of Chen Guangcheng by local authorities should be framed as counter-productive, not immoral. In an era of micro-blogs and increasing economic inequality, extra-legal suppression of debate does little to reinforce the Party's self-proclaimed legitimacy as patriarchic protector of the people.
The entire nation regards stability as the platform on which progress is constructed. If Obama plays his cards right, he can advance a sotte voce defense of our values and, at the same time, help the Chinese take small-but-important steps to modernize institutionalized checks and balances across different levels of the Party.
The cultural context of the Chen Guangcheng affair is explored in my upcoming book, What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism and China's Modern Consumer, to be released by Paglrave Macmillan on May 22 in the United States.