It looks like Chen Gaungcheng isn't going to be an albatross around President Obama's neck after all. If indeed Chen and his family wind up coming to America, the oomph will go out of the Chen-based narrative Mitt Romney has been developing: Obama administration sends blind guy to gulag lest he get in the way of Hillary Clinton's Beijing photo ops.
Still, it's true that in handling the Chen case the Obama administration seemed intent on not derailing meetings between Clinton and Chinese officials. And the Romney camp will keep trying to get some mileage out of that--at least, to judge by Jennifer Rubin's Washington Post blog, the unofficial archive of Romney campaign talking points. Friday morning, after the contours of the tentative deal to get Chen out of China had been reported, Rubin wrote that the administration's handling of the case had been "reprehensible."
The administration's missteps are reflective of the administration's mindset that "good relations" and "getting things done" with the Chinese are too important to let human rights get in the way. This is misguided, for in sacrificing human rights we signal weakness to the Chinese and erode our own moral standing.
And really, what have we gotten for all our diffidence to the Chinese regime?
Actually, among the things we've gotten for staying on good terms with China is China's acquiescence in UN Security Council sanctions against Iran--sanctions China had the power to veto. And unless I'm getting this Jennifer Rubin mixed up with another Jennifer Rubin, doing things that Iran's leaders don't like is something she strongly approves of.
But rather than do an accounting of specific quid pro quos that engagement with China has allowed, I'd like to challenge the idea that there's a clear moral distinction between emphasizing engagement and emphasizing human rights.
Our policy of engagement with China--economic engagement and diplomatic engagement--is now several decades old. It has been followed by every recent president, and you can bet that Mitt Romney wouldn't break the pattern. (Engagement's campaign-year critics invariably have a change of heart when they find themselves occupying the White House.) During these several decades, and partly as a result of engagement, China's trade has flourished, and millions of Chinese people have been pulled out of poverty. If you believe that having enough to eat is a human right, engagement with China has been in this sense pro-human rights.
Has the escape from poverty sometimes involved working under conditions that Americans find unimaginably oppressive? Yes, but the fact that Chinese flock from the countryside to these jobs suggests that the life of the rural peasant was even worse. What's more, China's engagement with the world makes it easier for governments and NGOs to agitate for better working conditions, with at least some successes here and there.
Another trend that has accompanied the engagement era is more power for the people. No, China is not a democracy, and, yes, its government can be brutally repressive. Indeed, it has in some ways gotten more repressive over the past couple of decades. Still, China is more pluralistic than it was before engagement; that is, citizens have more power to mobilize around grievances, ranging from environmental issues to abuses by the rich and powerful. And China's citizens have much more access to information about what's going on in China and in the world beyond.
My theory about the main source of these changes: A country that is commercially engaged with the world and wants to be economically competitive has to give lots of citizens access to information technologies that wind up being politically empowering. (Indeed, I think the subversive power of the internet is one reason China periodically amps up its repression.) But whatever the explanation, if you show me someone who says engagement hasn't been accompanied by greater pluralism, I'll show you someone whose memory of the Cold-War-era China that preceded engagement is hazy.
I'm not saying there aren't tough policy choices for America to make here. Shaming China about its human rights abuses--which pretty much every administration, including this one, does some of--may be productive, and may be worth some sacrifice in US-China engagement. But China's stable engagement with the US and with the world--the thing Jennifer Rubin refers to dismissively as "good relations"--has been good for China's populace pretty broadly. The idea that this week President Obama faced a choice between what's good for the Chinese people, on the one hand, and what sustains some abstraction called "good relations," on the other, is simplistic to the point of silliness.