U.S. influence on human rights in China is smaller than we'd like.

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I asked a China scholar about the Chen Guangcheng case, and his assessment made me think of photography.

David Bachman is a professor and past associate director of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He was chair of the UW China Studies Program for more than a decade and has been focused on China for decades.

In photography you often can’t keep both the foreground and background in focus.

Most people choose to keep the foreground sharp and let the rest recede into fuzziness.

Chen’s story is sharp and immediate and far more engaging than the large complex relationship the United States has with China.

“I have sympathy for Chen, but also a certain sadness that he will probably leave China, and his advocacy role will not be there,” Bachman said, “and that leaves the question of who picks up the mantle?”

If Chen is successful in coming to the United States, Bachman said, human rights will not be advanced. “At best, it doesn’t make any change,” Bachman said; “at worst, it removes a rallying figure.”

And for Chen himself, leaving China is not ideal. In exile he will have no impact on China, and he will be marginalized here, free, but not prepared to do well in the United States where he won’t even speak the language.

As frustrating as it is to many people, including himself, Bachman said, the U.S. has little power to affect human rights in China.

And there are so many other areas of concern in U.S.-China relations that human rights hasn’t topped the American agenda.

The U.S. needs Chinese cooperation on trade, North Korea, Syria, Iran, global warming and a host of other issues.

U.S. presidents since Richard Nixon have tried to engage China, Bachman said, and the nature of that relationship is constantly changing.

“The ability of the U.S. to tell China what to do becomes more and more constrained,” he said, even as we have more and more things we want Chinese cooperation on. “So we have to prioritize. Human rights drops down the agenda.”

And, he asks, even if you agree it is the most important issue, how does the United States affect it when there is no doubt the Chinese Communist Party is committed to remaining in power and willing to treat dissent harshly.

I asked Bachman about nongovernmental efforts to improve human rights in China.

Chinese exile groups are too fractured to have a big impact, he said.

Human-rights organizations try. But relief organizations and religious groups that operate in China are not likely to press too hard.

Businesses like Boeing and Microsoft, Bachman said, “are sure to tell their Chinese counterparts that if there are bad relations, it may interfere with our business, but they don’t want to stray into areas where, if they push too hard, they would encounter push back.”

I also asked about U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke’s role in this case and in pushing for human rights.

Bachman said the Chen case isn’t likely to change Locke’s situation much, though if Chen doesn’t get out, Congress will call Locke on the carpet.

He said Locke can create a positive impression with the Chinese people by carrying a backpack, but that for him to appeal directly to the people in more than a symbolic way would be a mistake. The Chinese government wouldn’t respond well to it.

It is important to understand that the relationship with China is so critical that it is increasingly conducted between the State Department and the Chinese foreign ministry. What Locke said and did in the Chen case would have been with instructions from the State Department, Bachman said.

While media attention was focused on Chen, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was in China for talks on issues critical to both countries. She reportedly stayed silent on Chen until near the end of the talks, but did eventually bring the matter up.

Chen may leave China, but there is little satisfaction to be gotten from the process or the result.

“The problem now is that people want China to change faster then it is,” Bachman said.

He counts himself in that group. “What our hopes are, and what the reality is, is quite different, so there is frustration, anger and loss of patience.”

It is not a pleasant picture.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter: @jerrylarge