Case of Blind Human Rights Activist Strains China-US Relations
The case of Chen Guangcheng has thrown up a sudden and serious challenge to Sino-US relations, backing both governments into tight corners as they weigh up domestic considerations against the need to maintain stable bilateral relations.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
Chen Guangcheng's dramatic escape from house arrest last week has marked one of the most dramatic incidents in Sino-US relations over human rights.
China appears to be considering allowing blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng to apply to study outside China.
The government statement signals a possible breakthrough in a diplomatic incident that has seriously embarrassed both China and the United States ahead of high-profile bilateral talks.
China's Foreign Ministry today (4 May) said that dissident Chen Guangcheng, who has been at the centre of a major diplomatic crisis, may apply to study abroad in the same manner as other Chinese citizens. The online statement made by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Weimin, read: "He [Chen] can apply through normal channels to the relevant departments in accordance with the law, just like any other Chinese citizen". The comments were posted as growing numbers of Chinese security personnel arrived at the Beijing hospital where Chen was admitted following his almost week-long stay at the US Embassy this week (see United States - China: 2 May 2012: Chinese Activist Chen Guangcheng Seen Leaving US Embassy in Beijing). They also came as the fourth round of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) got under way in Beijing yesterday (3 May), with President Hu Jintao calling on both sides to build a new type of relationship by deepening mutual trust.
Risk of Diplomatic Standoff
Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, in a January 2011 image, from a video
Chen sought refuge in the US embassy last week following a dramatic escape from house arrest in Shandong province on 22 April. The case threatened to trigger a major diplomatic standoff between the Beijing and Washington governments as both sides prepared for their annual two-day dialogue in the Chinese capital. Chen left the embassy on 2 May and proceeded to make his way to Chaoyang hospital, where he was reunited with his wife and two children. At that point, the United States was clearly hoping for an end to the incident after a deal was reached that Chen would be permitted to relocate to a safe place in China and study law in Tianjin. Tensions persisted, however, after Chen expressed concern that the Chinese government would not honour its end of the bargain. Fearing for the safety of his family, he changed his mind, saying that he now wanted to leave the country. In an emergency call to a US Congressional hearing in Washington yesterday, Chen appealed for help from the US.
The Blind, Self-Taught Lawyer
Chen, 41, is a self-educated human rights lawyer who campaigned on behalf of women who had been forced to undergo sterilisation and late-term abortions in his home province of Shandong. In 2005 he organised a lawsuit against the city of Linyi for government abuses in the implementation of the one-child policy. He was put under house arrest from September 2005 to March 2006 before being formally arrested in June 2006. In August of the same year, he was sentenced to four years and three months for "damaging property and organising a mob to disturb traffic". Chen was released in September 2010 but has remained in "soft detention" at his home in Dongshigu Village in Shandong.
Having initially refused to comment on Chen's case, the US government is now making frantic efforts to defend its actions during the Chen crisis. Yesterday, the US ambassador to China Gary Locke gave candid interviews to CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS news channels, transcripts of which were posted on the US embassy website. Locke said that US officials undertook what he called "almost Mission Impossible steps" to bring Chen to the embassy, "at great risk to our own personnel". He did not describe the exact nature of this risk to US diplomats. Locke said it was Chen's own decision to leave the embassy grounds and return to his family and continue his activism, noting that the Chinese government had offered him a full legal scholarship with housing paid for by the state. He rejected suggestions that Chen had felt under pressure for US diplomats to leave the safety of the mission, although Locke admitted that Chen now appears to have had a change of heart and wishes to flee China for the US.
Chen's claim that he feels abandoned by the US is potentially a grave political problem for US President Barack Obama in his re-election year. If voters believe US officials either abandoned a leading Chinese dissident deliberately, or were duped into doing so by false promises from the Chinese authorities, this will damage Obama's foreign policy credentials, particularly as his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is currently in China for bilateral talks. She said the US was committed to remaining "engaged" with Chen and his family in the years ahead, a commitment open to interpretation. Obama's Republican rival for the presidency Mitt Romney has joined other members of his party in questioning whether the Obama administration was more intent on appeasing the Beijing government than protecting human rights: he called reports that a US official had delivered to Chen, when inside the embassy, what Chen took to be a threat from the Chinese authorities as a "dark day for democracy" and a "day of shame for the Obama administration". The Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner said he was "deeply disturbed" by reports that Chen felt under pressure to leave the US embassy "amid flimsy promises and possible threats of harm to his family". Obama, he said, is now responsible for Chen's safety.
Given the Republican pressure, it is likely Obama will feel obligated to issue some kind of personal comment on the Chen affair today. If he fails to do so, the Republicans will use the Chen case to counteract the positive headlines that the president generated with his visit to Afghanistan to mark the one-year anniversary of the raid to kill Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (see United States - Afghanistan: 2 May 2012: President Obama Flies to Kabul As US Outlines Afghan Strategic Partnership). Any such statement will need to impress upon the Chinese authorities the need for them to honour the agreement over Chen's release, without issuing threats that impair bilateral relations and escalate the crisis still further. If he is too timid, however, the Republicans will seize on this as evidence that Obama is more interested in protecting relations with the Beijing government than defending one of China's leading dissidents, a line of attack that feeds into Romney's narrative that Obama's foreign policy has expended more effort in embracing non-democracies than he has in protecting traditional alliances and promoting freedom.
China's Stance on Chen
The Chen case has come at a highly awkward time for China as it continues to deal with the political debris stemming from the sudden ouster of former Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai (see China: 11 April 2012: With Scandal Deepening, Former Chongqing Party Boss Ousted from China's Politburo). The Bo incident exposed disunity and deep-seated corruption and rot at the apex of Chinese politics just as the country enters into a major political transition from the fourth to the fifth generation leadership later this year, when seven of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee are due to step down. With the Communist Party still reeling from the political and reputational damage caused by Bo, the current spotlight on domestic human rights abuse in China as a result of Chen's escape was the last thing the Beijing authorities wanted. In this case, the Chen case has exposed the very thin line between political activism on local issues and falling foul of the government after being deemed a threat to the state. Here it is also worth noting that the Hu-Wen Jiabao administration has done little to advance the case of human rights during its eight-year tenure. From the outset, the Chinese have thus taken a firm stance on the issue, making it clear to the US that its embassy cannot provide protection to a dissident who has been convicted under Chinese law. At the same time, the Beijing government will continue to use the S&ED to rebuff US depictions of its human rights record as poor and instead stress the need to strengthen communication.
Outlook and Implications
The Chen problem has thrown up a major and expected challenge to Sino-US relations, backing both governments into a tight corner as they weigh up domestic considerations against the need to maintain stable bilateral relations. Reports that the Obama administration is considering selling US fighter jets to Taiwan will do nothing to help the situation (see United States - Taiwan: 1 May 2012: US Government Considers F-16 Jet Sale to Taiwan). The episode echoes that of Chinese astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, who sought protection from the US Embassy after being accused of fermenting unrest at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Negotiations between then President George Bush and former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in that instance continued for over one year. China-US ties have clearly made massive progress since then, and the handling of the Chen case may well serve to highlight just how far and how multi-layered the relationship has become. From this perspective, a decision to permit Chen to study abroad could potentially give Chinese officials a face-saving opportunity, allowing China to be seen to be taking the decision on Chen's fate and to frame it in terms of standard practice.
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