How fast is the fast deal struck between China and the U.S. over the departure of Chen Guangcheng from the U.S. embassy in Beijing? The are few precedents concerning previous visitors to American diplomatic outposts who have ‘left of their own volition’. The most recent one, Wang Lijun, disgraced Bo Xilai’s former police chief in Chongqing, is hardly a happy one. The circumstances surrounding Chen’s case are much different, though. For one, for all Chen’s international fame, he is little known inside China outside activist circles. His human rights activities, notably his exposure of forced abortions in Linyi in Shandong, challenged local rather than national politicians. His imprisonment and subsequent house arrest were prosecuted locally not nationally. He has not made any political demands on Beijing, beyond calling on it to investigate his treatment at the hands of local officials.
Chen’s flight to the U.S. embassy, where he had taken refuge for six days, was nonetheless an embarrassment and inconvenience to central government, especially coming as it did against the backdrop of the Bo affair and the always heightened security concerns of a leadership transition, and immediately ahead of a visit by the U.S. secretaries of state and Treasury, Hilary Clinton and Timothy Geithner. The later made it another and unasked-for test of the China-U.S. relationship. The foreign ministry was tart in its first public comment on the affair, demanding an apology from the Americans for interfering in domestic affairs. That despite the part the ministry would have played in the rapid diplomatic diffusing of the case. The Americans have issued no apology, saying just that they consider Chen’s an exceptional case. A pro-forma response to a perfunctory protest. Both sides save face.
Chen’s wish to stay in China rather than go in to exile made it easier to settle this incident quickly. What remains unclear is how credible are the guarantees the authorities have given to both Chen and the Americans that the activist can live freely with his family and attend law school (he is a self-trained lawyer) away from Shandong. U.S. ambassador Gary Locke publicly accompanied Chen from the embassy to Chaoyang Hospital, where Chen was to be reunited with his family and receive further treatment for a foot injury sustained during his escape from Linyi. It was a clear attempt to attract a domestic spotlight on Chen.
Both sides will keep a watchful eye on him. That is a considerably easier task for Chinese authorities than American diplomats. For as long as Chen keeps his head down and doesn’t become a national figure, there is no reason to believe that he won’t be left as alone as any other Chinese citizen, and will be as free to be as politically active in future as the circumstances at the time allow. But in the words of the old Russian proverb beloved of both Lenin and Ronald Reagan, trust but verify.
Update: The deal appears to be going pear-shaped already. U.S. press reports quote Chen saying he now wants to leave the country. He fears for the safety of his family, and that he only left the refuge of the U.S. embassy in the face of threats that his wife and children would forcibly returned to Shandong and beaten.
Beyond the human tragedy, if this is true, it would be a blow to the U.S.’s standing in China and in particular to that of the Obama administration at home and abroad.