Western media describe my friend and colleague Chen Guangcheng as a blind activist who made a flight to freedom when China allowed him to journey from Beijing to the United States. What is essential about Chen is neither his blindness nor his family’s visit to the U.S., but the fact that he upholds a vision of universal human rights, a vision that can be fully realized only when, and if, China honors its promise to allow him one day to return home.

China has a history of forcing scholars and dissidents like us into exile. When the Chinese student movement broke out in 1989, I was pursuing a doctoral degree in mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. I traveled to Beijing to participate as an activist in Tiananmen Square, where I narrowly escaped the massacre and was able to make my way back to the U.S.

Due to my activism, however, China refused to renew my passport. So, when I returned to China in 2002 to help the movement for workers’ rights, I used a friend’s passport. China incarcerated me as a political prisoner for five years, until 2007. For a year and a half of that period, I was held in solitary confinement, without access to visitors, reading materials, or even paper and pen.

Upon my release, China renewed my passport on the condition that I return to the U.S. I have tried three times to return to my homeland, only to see the Chinese government block each attempt at the Hong Kong airport.

So Chen’s case serves as a reminder that those who want to support Chinese activists’ struggle for human rights must support our right to enter and leave China freely.

It also confirms that China’s top leaders can be moved when the international community, led by the U.S., puts specific cases like his on the table. China’s leaders directed negotiators to resolve the issue before the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, because she could be counted on to raise the issue in full view of the world’s media. This naming and shaming approach can be more effective than most observers think.

Human rights need not take a back seat to doing business with China. As a case in point, many Western observers thought that Norway’s trade relations with China would be undermined when dissident Liu Xiaobo was invited to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in December 2010. China complained loudly, refused to allow Liu to collect the prize, and even threatened Norway with financial repercussions.

The same month, however, one of China’s largest oil companies concluded a drilling contract with Norway’s Statoil, clearly signaling that diplomatic tensions would not stop business.

So Western diplomats who negotiate with China should call lower-level officials’ bluff, and focus on the signal-to-noise ratio, bearing in mind that, ultimately, decisions are taken quietly at a higher level by pragmatic leaders who are indeed susceptible to pressure. After all, economic growth remains China’s best hope to keep the regime afloat, and it is the main criterion for officials’ promotion through the ranks. So the last thing that officials at any level want to do is jeopardize international trade.

The strong commitment of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration in supporting Chen made a difference, and it will make a difference in other cases, too. So we voices for human rights in China have reason to express gratitude to Clinton, Ambassador Gary Locke, House Speaker John Boehner, U.S. Representatives Chris Smith, Frank Wolf, Nancy Pelosi, Jim McGovern, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and many citizens who spoke out for Chen.

Chen had been sentenced to four years and three months in jail because he alienated corrupt local officials. After he served his term, the same officials funneled government funds to hire 200 thugs to punish him further by keeping him confined to his house.

The resolution of Chen’s dilemma shows that standing up for human rights will gain the grudging respect of China’s leadership and citizenry. In addition, promoting democracy and human rights in authoritarian countries such as China will improve their social equality, economic productivity, and political stability in the long run, making them better trading partners.

The right of return and freedom of speech were uppermost in Chen’s mind as he engineered his family’s departure for the U.S. I know because I spoke with him while he was in a hospital, negotiating his release. Exile is not freedom. For Chen, as for myself, the true flight to freedom will be made with a return ticket home.

Yang Jianli is founder and president of Initiatives for China. On May 23 in Geneva, he received the U.N. Watch 2012 Morris B. Abram Human Rights Award. © 2012 Project Syndicate

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