Barack Obama says he agrees with Abraham Lincoln (you could ask him) that America is “the exceptional nation,” a nation unique in a world of moral squalor, a beacon of hope for the “tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But sometimes cold pragmatism demands the exceptional nation make exceptions.
This was apparently the message sent to Chen Guangcheng, the blind human-rights hero who fled for his life to the American embassy in Beijing. He didn’t ask for asylum, exactly, but he was desperate for help. A blind man who travels 400 miles, evading cops and soldiers to reach the American embassy, fits the definition of desperate. But after six days of negotiations between American diplomats and the Chinese government, a deal was struck, and Mr. Chen left the embassy. To the surprise only of the Americans, Mr. Chen said Thursday that the Chinese were not living up to the agreement.
The specifics of the deal are leaking slowly, and outsiders can’t know for sure exactly what’s going down. The U.S. State Department says it did nothing to force Mr. Chen to leave the embassy, which is something the Chinese government devoutly wanted. But the State Department is stuck with the reputation for weakness, vacillation, hesitation, mendacity and shilly-shallying it has earned over the years, so most of us take the account of friends of Mr. Chen as the straighter goods.
“I can confirm without doubt that I spoke to both Chen and [his wife] Yuan, and Yuan told me she was frightened,” Zeng Jinyan, wife of the prominent dissident Hu Jia, told Foreign Policy magazine. “Chen said he did not want to leave the embassy and did so because officials threatened to send his family back to [his village] if he refused.” Another dissident told the magazine that “it’s now clear from several friends that Chen feels threatened.”
Chen himself told the Associated Press that American foreign service officers told him that the Chinese would beat his wife to death if he didn’t leave the embassy and agree to the terms of the deal. The deal, as outlined by an editor of Foreign Policy magazine, speaking from Beijing, would enable Chen to meet his family at a hospital where he could get treatment for the leg injury he suffered escaping from his village, that his family would be treated “humanely,” and after “relocation” Chen would be allowed to study at a university.
If the State Department was satisfied with China’s assurance he would be treated “humanely,” why wasn’t Mr. Chen? Would the Chinese government lie? Would ours? A senior U.S. official, desperate to put the story to rest, told reporters in Beijing that Mr. Chen was so grateful that he called Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to say, “I want to kiss you.”
No doubt everyone has wild dreams of kissing Hillary, but Zeng Jinyan disputes that account. Mr. Chen told her he wanted to “see” Hillary, not “kiss” her. A little lovin’ seems oddly on the minds of the American diplomats. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, the key American negotiator, said Mr. Chen was so grateful for the deal that “he hugged and thanked us all.” Who knew the Chinese, a reserved and dignified race, had succumbed to the Western mania for hugging and kissing strangers?
Hillary seemed to suffer little hunger for his kiss, or stray hugs, either. She merely said afterward, in the canned language of a Holiday Inn manager thanking a traveler for his custom, that she was “pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng’s stay and departure from the U.S. Embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values.” She didn’t even offer him an extra night the next time he visits, as a Holiday Inn might.
Mr. Chen first humiliated the Chinese commissars, insofar as commissars are capable of feeling shame, by leading protests against compulsory sterilization and forced abortions. He soon escaped from house arrest and made his way to the capital. He was found by local officials, beaten to within an inch of his life and sentenced to four years in prison for “damaging property” and “disturbing traffic.” Once released from prison he was put under house arrest in his native village, guarded by hundreds of plainclothes thugs who would not allow anyone to approach his house.
His latest heroics and his unrequited love for “the exceptional nation” have not dimmed his poignant optimism. “My fervent hope,” he told the online Daily Beast, “is that it would be possible for me and my family to leave for the United States on Hillary Clinton’s plane.” Even without kiss or hug.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.