An Inconvenient Hero

Chen Guangcheng is a hero. Of that there can be no doubt. This blind, self-taught human rights lawyer has fought for the rights of women and the poor in China and has been courageous in exposing one of the most despicable elements of China's authoritarian regime: its practice of forced abortion and sterilization to coercively implement its one-child policy. He and his family have paid a heavy price for his principled activism, and it is now time for the United States to help secure his safety and freedom.

One week ago, in a move worthy of a Hollywood script, Chen made a daring escape from his 19-month long house arrest and sought refuge at the American Embassy in Beijing. On Wednesday, he left the safety of the Embassy and was taken to a hospital for medical treatment of an injury sustained during his escape. Although initial reports portrayed his departure as voluntary, the picture grows more confused and disturbing with each passing hour. It now seems that Chen was told his wife would be beaten to death if he did not leave the U.S. compound. Under such circumstances, his departure could hardly be considered "voluntary" and such threats, if true, would certainly demonstrate the utter unreliability of any other Chinese assurances regarding Chen's future safety and welfare.

The Embassy clearly did the right thing in opening its doors to Chen as he fled his persecutors. As Americans, we would expect our government to do no less. However, there is growing unease that in a rush to resolve a sticky diplomatic quandary that threatened to disrupt this week's important bilateral meetings between the Secretary of State and Chinese leaders, we permitted Chen and his family to be put in a position of untenable danger and vulnerability.

As it stands now, the situation in China has presented American foreign policy with a truly significant test. The competing interests of protecting the safety of a noted human rights hero and maintaining positive U.S.-China relations during this important summit have left a huge cloud of doubt hanging over America's commitment to standing up for human rights. For the Lantos Foundation, the choice is simple: we cannot allow our nation's most fundamental human values to be sidelined in the interest of strategic and economic goals. It is the steadfast devotion to those values of decency, dignity, and freedom that make the United States the strongest nation on the face of the earth.

In the last few days, American actions in the Chen case have earned mixed marks. In providing refuge to Chen, America did the right thing. In accepting at face value the representations of Chinese officials, our diplomats may have been guilty of inexcusable and willful naiveté. It is now incumbent upon our government to secure safety and freedom for Chen and his family. This will not be easy to accomplish and this moral test has undoubtedly come at an awkward time. But in the words of the old proverb, "there is never a wrong time to do the right thing."

Chen Guangcheng's heroism is profound, his developing circumstances are distressing, and unfortunately for U.S.-China relations, the timing of all of this is undeniably inconvenient. But in the end, America cannot escape our moral responsibility to help this brave "barefoot lawyer."

Ms. Katrina Lantos Swett, Ph.D, serves as President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, which she established in 2008 to carry on the work of her father, the late Congressman Tom Lantos. She teaches Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy at Tufts University.