The controversy over Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng spilled into the presidential campaign Thursday as Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the situation.
Campaigning in Virginia, Romney was quoted as saying that if news reports that Chen was pressured to leave the U.S. Embassy in Beijing are true, it would represent a "dark day for freedom" and a "day of shame for the Obama administration."
At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney said there was “no pressure of any kind” on Chen to leave.
“At no point during his time in the embassy did Mr. Chen ever request political asylum in the U.S.,” Carney said. “At every opportunity, he expressed his desire to stay in China, reunify with his family, continue his education and work for reforming his country. All of our diplomacy was directed at putting him in the best possible position to achieve his objectives.”
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The Republican National Committee, sensing a vulnerability in foreign affairs – which has been a strong suit for President Barack Obama – quickly sent out a news release, suggesting that the president’s policies "leave human rights activists wondering whose side Obama is on."
The administration gets mixed reviews from experts on its overall human rights record, with activists noting its work in Burma and the recent convening of an atrocity prevention panel.
Frank Jannuzi, the head of Amnesty International’s Washington office, which has been critical of the administration for failing to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, acknowledged “room for improvement” but said the administration had early on identified Chen as a person of concern and maintained a “sustained, high level involvement” in his situation.
“Now that Chen seems to be having some reservations, it’s incumbent on the U.S. to have his wishes guide us,” Jannuzi said. “We can’t expect overnight, instant results in terms of transforming the Chinese human rights record.”
Doug Paal, an Asia analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argued that the administration hasn’t put human rights “front and center” as other Democratic administrations did, such as under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
While Paal said that two of the State Department officials involved in the negotiations in Beijing were “demigods in the human rights movement,” he added that they’re “new on the train in China.”
He suggested there had been a “tinge of the amateur” in the administration’s response to Chen, “in trusting China, but not understanding China.”
Romney, according to the Los Angeles Times, cited news reports that he said suggested the administration may have “willingly or unwittingly, communicated to Chen an implicit threat, to his family,” and might have “sped up” the process of his exiting the embassy to clear the agenda for broader talks on the U.S-Chinese relationship that started Thursday.
“It’s also apparent, according to these reports if they’re accurate, that our embassy failed to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would assure the safety of Mr. Chen and his family,” Romney said. “If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom and it’s a day of shame for the Obama administration. We are a place of freedom, here and around the world, and we should stand up and defend freedom wherever it is under attack.”
The Obama camp responded with a swipe at Romney, charging him with having “no coherent foreign policy vision, no concrete plans to enhance our security and strengthen our alliances.
“Rather than leveling these empty political attacks at the president, Mitt Romney should tell the American people exactly what he would do as commander in chief,” campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said.
The case took center stage at the Capitol, where Republican lawmakers and human rights activists at a hastily convened hearing criticized the administration for not being more forceful with the Chinese government. Chen himself telephoned into the meeting for about 10 minutes from his hospital room, telling the audience through a translator that he wanted to come to the U.S. “for a time of rest. I have not had any rest in the past 10 years.”
He said he was most concerned about the safety of his mother and brother, adding that Chinese officials have installed seven video cameras and an electric fence at his house.
He also said he wanted to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and “thank her face to face.”
Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., a longtime critic of China’s human rights record who chairs the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, told Chen that he and his family need to be on a plane to the United States.
“Your case is the test of the Chinese commitment to protect you,” Smith said. “It’s also a test for the United States and whether human rights really matter.”
Human-rights activists at the hearing directed most of their frustration at the State Department, saying it had botched the situation. A department representative attended the hearing but didn’t testify.
“What happened to Chen Guangcheng under (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s) watch in Beijing yesterday was a betrayal of these very same rights she vowed to uphold,” said Chai Ling, the founder of All Girls Allowed, a humanitarian organization that campaigns against China’s one-child policy, which Chen made a focal point of his dissidence.
Michael Horowitz, a former Reagan administration official who’s now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative research center, was less diplomatic, chastising the State Department for “sheer, utter incompetence” and charging that U.S. officials failed “bargaining 101.”
He said officials shouldn’t have taken Beijing’s assurances at face value and that the U.S. missed an opportunity to negotiate a better outcome for Chen and his family.
But Bob Fu, a pastor who was a student leader in the 1989 democracy movement and provided translation for Chen during the hearing, said the U.S. could make amends. For Clinton, he said, “This is the moment to deliver.”
Fu said Chen “reluctantly” left the U.S. Embassy out of fear for the safety of his wife and children.
Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch, said Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Ambassador Gary Locke and other U.S. officials now negotiating in China should “go to the hospital and insist on access to Chen.”
His case, she said, represents the darkest side of China’s human rights record.
“Year in and year out, we continue to document gross abuses,” she said.