The flight of Chen Guangcheng from house arrest in Shandong to the refuge of the American embassy in Beijing comes at a highly inconvenient time for Sino-U.S. relations. U.S. Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, and her counterpart at the U.S. Treasury, Timothy Geithner, are due in Beijing this week for what were routine bilateral talks. These will now be overshadowed by what is an embarrassment to Chinese authorities and a problem U.S. diplomats could do with out given all the other glowing embers of contention between the two countries. Clinton has advanced the dispatch of some of her sherpas in an effort to defuse the situation before she arrives. Her assistant secretary of state, Kurt Campbell, is already in Beijing, several days ahead of his planned arrival.
Both governments are staying mum on Chen’s case. The Americans haven’t officially acknowledged Chen is sheltering in their embassy. China’s foreign ministry spokesman says they have no information about Chen’s whereabouts. Whatever. With China’s leadership mired in the Bo Xilai affair and Amerca’s in a presidential election, both governments will want a quiet solution, but are unlikely to get it because of the domestic political pressures.
The Obama administration was criticized domestically for not granting Wang Lijun, Bo’s police chief in Chongqing, asylum when he went to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu to reveal that Bo’s wife Gu Kailai was implicated in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. To deny asylum to Chen, if he asks for it, a person whose case the Americans have repeatedly raised on human rights grounds, would open the Obama administration to charges by his Republican opponents of again being “soft on China”, just as they accuse him of being over trade, currency and other economic issues. The administration, which doesn’t have the luxury of being able to criticize from the campaign trail without having to deal with the fallout from “interfering in China’s domestic affairs”, has been trying to walk a tightrope between promoting human rights without that a getting in the way of working with Beijing on global and regional issues that affect U.S. national interests.
With China’s rise as a regional and economic power, the two countries’ national interests intersect ever more frequently–Syria, Iran, North Korea, South China Sea, Taiwan–to list some current points of tension. All are ones where nationalist voices can be raised strongly at any time, and amplified by domestic politics. Within China, it doesn’t take much for the conservatives in Beijing to resurrect the specter that Washington is exploiting Chinese domestic events to weaken or encircle the country. One reason that the diplomats on both sides want a quiet, face-saving resolution to the Chen affair is that both sets know they have bigger issues to fight over.
Older readers may remember the case of Fang Lizhi, who sheltered in the U.S. embassy in Beijing for more a year in the wake of Tiananmen in 1989. It was caustic to China-U.S. relations. The relationship has matured but also become more complex since. Yet a diplomatic sweeping under the carpet of an inconvenient affair is not what the diplomats are likely to get. Chen is going to be a stern test of the bigger relationship.