Tag Archives: Chen Guangcheng

Moving On

Not very, is the answer to the question we posed about the stickiness of the initial deal between Beijing and Washington over the activist Chen Guangcheng. The deal’s second incarnation, now seemingly in the making, will let Chen go to the U.S. to study law, accompanied by his family. There, if history is prologue, he will fade into anonymity.

Beijing has in the past been ready to let dissidents and activists leave the country, if they go quietly. Chen’s flight from illegal house arrest by provincial officials in Shandong to the refuge of the U.S. embassy in Beijing and then his change of mind about staying in the country has brought more international attention to his case than Beijing is comfortable with. That has raised the hackles of interference in domestic affairs. But Chen is not of great importance to central government in the greater scheme of things, and certainly of lesser importance than he has become outside the country, particularly to those in the U.S. who see his case providing political capital in an election year. Beijing just wants the matter done with, so it can get on with dealing with its bigger problems.

It has made the point that if Chen is to go into exile, it will be on Beijing’s terms, not Washington’s. That sets a certain deterrent to would-be copycats. This has hardly been a high point in the China-U.S. relationship, even as it has simultaneously highlighted the fragility and importance of that relationship. History, we suspect, will ultimately judge the Chen affair as no more than a footnote in the development of the relationship and of the rule of law in China.

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Trust But Verify

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.

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The Chen Case: A Inconvenient Test Of China-U.S. Relations

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.

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