How to Avoid the Next Chen Guangcheng Mess

Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng has had his share of political frustration over the past few years, but at the moment he's one of the most powerful people in the world. How he winds up framing his decision to leave the American embassy, and what he decides to do next, could (1) affect President Obama's chances of re-election (and Chen's current framing is definitely not helping Obama); and (2) significantly complicate Chinese-American relations.

The part of me that likes dissidents is happy about this. The part of me that likes to keep great powers on good terms isn't; that part of me finds it unsettling that a single person, however noble his cause, could disrupt relations between China and America at a time when the world definitely doesn't need more instability.

Is there a way these two parts of me could both find happiness? Could we arrange things so that, in the future, people who seek refuge in embassies could have their day in court without threatening relations among nations?

Warning: I'm about to enter visionary mode .

Wouldn't it be nice if there was some international tribunal that handled cases like this? If such a thing existed, we could have just said to China: As is our unvarying custom, we are turning the Chen Guangcheng case over to the IXYZ (insert international acronym of your choice) and will abide by its decision; meanwhile, Chen can stay in our embassy as long as he likes. Poof--just like that, tension between America and China would begin to dissipate.

Actually, the Chen Guangcheng case is a bad example, because it's not a true asylum case. When Chen first sought refuge in the US embassy, he didn't want to leave China. Only after choosing release, and being released, did he rethink that matter. Still, the point is that in general in cases like this, tension between the two nations would be eased if the resolution of the case were taken out of their hands.

There's precedent for an international adjudicatory body reducing bilateral tensions. Thanks to the World Trade Organization, America and China, rather than fling accusations at each other and start trade wars, can fling accusations at each other, then file claims against each other with the WTO, and then sometime later, if they don't like the outcome, fling accusations at the WTO.

Obviously, the WTO analogy has one big shortcoming. Whereas China chose to join the WTO, it would be much less likely to embrace an international body for settling asylum cases. But so what? Even if China and some other authoritarian countries weren't party to the tribunal-creating treaty, America could still make it an ironclad policy--enshrined in legislation that tied the president's hands--to always defer to the tribunal. So our president would be powerless to respond to China's lobbying over an asylum case, and China would have to accept that.

There are lots of doubts you could raise about this proposal and lots of details that would have to be fleshed out before it started sounding like a compelling idea. And the proposal might not withstand these doubts and might never sound compelling. That's why they call this mode visionary mode...

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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