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Don’t fight over rights

30 April 2012 By John Foley

An escaped Chinese dissident takes refuge in the U.S. embassy. It’s a diplomatic crisis, but needn’t become an economic one. Washington values rights, but it also needs a stable and cooperative China. As for Beijing, it has a chance to improve its image.

Blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng’s escape from house arrest came just days before the U.S. and China’s annual economic summit in Beijing. In a year of political transition for both sides, things could escalate. China hates foreign meddling; the United States has accepted high profile defectors before. Though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton favours “principled pragmatism”, she is an outspoken critic of China’s human rights record – and of Chen’s plight.

But a deep freeze between the world’s two biggest economies would be bad for the world. Besides, there is a deep economic co-dependency. While China’s overall trade surplus has been shrinking, the trade gap with Uncle Sam has actually widened. It hit a record $299 billion in the 12 months to February 2012, Reuters data shows.

A face-saving solution is certainly possible. If Beijing gives Chen some guarantees that he and his family will be left alone, he could return to his Shandong village. There are precedents: Lai Changxing, a ringleader in a notorious corruption ring, was extradited from Canada on the promise that he wouldn’t be put to death. Beijing could even blame Chen’s captivity on wayward local officials, and burnish its own credentials for upholding the rule of law.

The Chinese approach to human rights will remain a political challenge. More asylum-seekers in the United States come from China than from any other country, and the number of petitioners has been growing at a double digit-rate. By Western standards, Beijing still lags in the protection of its citizens.

Still, Western governments can’t easily back off from the bet they made a decade ago, when China was admitted to the World Trade Organisation – the step that kicked off its latest prodigious phase of growth. They decided then that China would become less repressive as it got richer. Chen’s case may show whether that judgment was the right one.


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