World, Politics

More than blind faith needed for Chen Guangcheng’s perfect storm

By J Brooks Spector 2 May 2012

On Thursday, relations between the US and China will be severely tested when secretary of state Hillary Clinton and treasury secretary Timothy Geithner meet their counterparts in Beijing. They certainly have much to talk about, but it is the fate of the blind Chinese human rights lawyer that might dominate the whole party. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

If the US and China are really lucky, diplomats will manage to sort out Chen Guangchen’s fate before their now-annual economic and political dialogue actually begins. Otherwise, those sessions are going to be a whole lot rockier than what everybody had planned for in their briefing papers.

Chen, now in hiding, is either in a safe house or in a room in the American embassy, after a remarkable escape from house arrest. So far at least, neither side has been willing to say much about the crisis that is spinning out from Chen’s work, his recent remarkable escape, his current whereabouts or his future, for fear of pushing the bilateral talks into freefall.

Less constrained by official caution, independent analysts are already saying this is the most difficult moment in Sino-US relations since either the crushing of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 or the forced landing of a US surveillance aircraft on China’s Hainan Island in 2001.

One anonymous academic from a government research institute in Beijing told Western media, “Chinese leaders face a huge headache right now. I don’t see any easy way out of this mess.”

The crisis began when Chen – the blind, self-trained Chinese lawyer who has been a champion of a campaign against forced abortions as part of China’s “one family, one child” policy – escaped from house arrest a week ago, with the assistance of a network of friends and supporters. Reportedly, he took sanctuary in the American embassy in Beijing. Regardless of any doubts about any of the details, the career of the officer in charge of Chen’s house arrest has almost certainly taken a major downward nosedive.

Less than a day after Chen’s escape, a video describing his flight was already available via YouTube, even before the Chinese government had managed to convene all the meetings needed to cobble together its response to Chen’s escape. As part of its response, China is reportedly clamping down on the country’s social media as the government grapples with Chen’s remarkable exodus from captivity and into the international limelight.

In fact, Chen’s story was not the only issue that has come into play to roil the upcoming talks. News of his escape broke publicly on the same day that the Obama administration admitted it was now reconsidering its opposition to selling new-generation fighter jets to Taiwan, another immensely sensitive issue in Beijing, given Beijing’s absolute unwillingness to admit that Taiwan is anything other than a province of China.

Previously the US had declined to sell the latest version of the F-16 to the Taiwan regime, offering to upgrade earlier editions of the fighter jet instead. Christopher Johnson, a former China analyst for the CIA, notes: “This is as near as there has been to a perfect storm in US-China relations since 1989. It is a very messy situation.”

Diplomats have been comparing Chen’s case to that of Fang Lizhi, the Chinese astrophysicist and dissident who had also fled to the US embassy after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. However, Chen’s case may be more difficult to resolve.

Back in 1989, US officials eventually gained agreement from China for Fang (who has just died in America) and his wife to leave China on the grounds of accessing medical treatment in the US. Some sources have told the media in China that the US intends to offer medical treatment as a pretext for Chen’s departure from China as well, but that is not what Chen seems to want to do.

For China’s Communist party leaders, the Chen incident comes at a particularly bad time. The regime is already working to contain its most serious crisis since 1989 as the aftermath of the recent ouster of Bo Xilai, the now-former party head of Chongqing, a left-leaning, corruption-battling populist who was backed by many conservative political figures, has now thrown the party’s once-in-a-decade leadership succession into disarray.

In a serious version of locking the barn door after the horse has bolted, this past weekend Chinese authorities detained a number of Chen’s friends and family. “Stability is most important in this crucial year ahead of the 18th party congress (which is to determine the next leadership),” said a provincial party official as a kind of explanation for all this.

Human Rights Watch China researcher Nicholas Bequelin comments, “Chen Guangcheng played a central role in accelerating the (rise of) rights lawyers in China. Therefore the Chinese government is looking at a much bigger issue than embarrassment: It is sitting on top of a volcano of social unrest, which would become even more dangerous if Chen Guangcheng is freed up to continue campaigning.”

Faced with the start of the formal talks between the big guns that begins on Thursday, the two countries now have a narrow window of opportunity and time to come up with a mutually face-saving solution. Failure to do so would almost certainly mean positions will harden and duelling politicians in both countries will use it as a club against their opponents, rather than underplay or ignore the issue in the interests of the larger bilateral relationship.

For the Chinese, the Chen question is not just a bilateral US-China issue. It could also become a tool in the hands of various sides in a complex, factional battle over the destabilising effects of human rights campaigns such as those pursued by Chen. Some analysts add that proponents of political reform, such as soon-to-retire Premier Wen Jiabao, might make use of Chen’s escape to attack Zhou Yongkang, China’s top security official and a leading conservative, for bungling the case and shaming China internationally.

Whereas the Chen issue isn’t likely to provoke the Chinese version of an Arab Spring, it does feed into the larger narrative of domestic difficulties and uncertainties that have emanated outward since Bo’s political defenestration (and his wife’s arrest, charges of corruption and the tendrils snaking around the death of a British businessman-fixer), as well as the economic reform challenges Wen had already outlined in his speech at the National Peoples’ Consultative Congress earlier in the year. This is in addition to a slowing growth rate and growing demands and stresses on China’s economy.

The Chen conundrum came along just as Wen was putting reform back on the front burner. For some, the Chen case is an opportunity for the country’s political centre to draw its own line in the sand on behalf of the rule of law, blaming out-of-control local officials for his ordeal – an approach that could at least point to a way forward in dealing with dissidents like Chen in future.

The longer the standoff goes on, however, the more likely some of the country’s conservative voices might use the crisis as a reason for complaining about US interference in Chinese politics, thereby calling for the government to hang tough on this one. In fact, the last time Wen led a reform agenda was just prior to a big Communist Party meeting in the autumn of 2010, just as jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo received his Nobel peace prize. The backlash from conservative forces handily cut off the oxygen for the reform campaign.

For President Barack Obama, his administration faces forces within the American human rights community and among Republicans, who would be happy to see the handling of Chen’s circumstances used as a litmus test of Obama’s policy to pivot strategically to the East and deal pragmatically with China. The elements and potential pitfalls for Obama are already in place for this issue to penetrate deeply into American politics.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his advisors had been searching for ways to make a label of “weak on foreign policy” stick to Obama who, until now, has been able to point to his foreign policy as one of his administration’s key strengths and successes – heading into the actual 2012 campaign against Romney.

The Romney camp has been ramping up to use China – and Chen – to draw one of those metaphorical lines in the sand to say their candidate will stir up a real hornets’ nest if Obama doesn’t do everything possible to embrace and protect Chen. Romney forces would actually be playing a strong hand on this, one deep within the American psyche – and most Americans might well agree.

It was one thing, after all, for the US government to send Wang Lijun, the Chongqing police chief, back out into the cold in February when he pitched up without an appointment at the American consulate in Chengdu, given his track record as victimiser rather than victim on the human rights ledger. But Chen Guangcheng, by contrast, is a genuine human rights hero. He is someone with a compelling personal narrative.

Obvious weakness on this could pose dangers for Obama within the human rights community as well. It is a segment of the population where Obama has previously drawn much of his intellectual and media support. While their vote total may not be crucial for an Obama win in November, their ability to shape the election’s zeitgeist conversation away from his strengths and towards weaknesses might well be much more damaging for him this year.

For American negotiators at the upcoming meeting and beyond, there is the temptation to decide that, sadly, human rights issues such as Chen’s future have a lesser priority than restoring the health of the global economy; loosening exchange controls for the Chinese currency and thus improving market access; help on restricting nuclear proliferation in countries such as Iran and North Korea; support for stabilising the situation in Syria and the standoff between Sudan and South Sudan; and to advance stronger deals to temper industrial pollution’s contributions to climate change.

So far at least, the Obama administration has been threading a slender needle, insisting that Chinese human rights issues are important, but not mentioning Chen by name in the process

Henry Kissinger described this realpolitik temptation when he urged the two Pacific powers to come together in a community of interests in his latest book. The same can be said of Clinton’s own words early in her tenure when she argued that, though human rights issues are important, they “can’t interfere” with other vital parts of the US-China agenda.

Nevertheless, as she prepared to depart Washington for these meetings, she pledged to press China’s leaders on human rights. She also sent assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell to Beijing over the weekend to try to reach a last-minute deal over Chen before his predicament overshadows the talks.

At this point, potential solutions include the idea that Chen would go into exile (something he and his Chinese supporters say he doesn’t want to do), move to the former foreign territories of Hong Kong or Macau and carry out his work there, or be allowed to live and work without hindrance inside China, his preferred option. This is something the Chinese government is extremely unlikely to permit.

However, as much as some might wish to lessen the connection of human rights and related political ideas to the bilateral tie, they remain a key part of the dynamic between the two countries – just as they form a central element in the American political dialogue. An American president ignores this at his peril. Obama made just that connection explicit some months earlier when he first described the pivot to Asia, arguing it was part of a longer-term project to underpin economic and political freedom in the region. He also said recently, as he appeared at the White House with Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda:  “It is our belief that not only is that the right thing to do, because it comports with our belief in freedom and human rights, but also because we actually think China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalises its own system. We want China to be strong, and we want it to be prosperous.”

The fact that the only potential challenger to this new US-led Asian order for the 21st century is one-party-state China will continue to be a key concern for US analysts, politicians and international strategists. Though India has been doing some of the same things as China – building aircraft carriers and advanced missiles among them – analysts point to India’s broadly democratic values as proof that it will behave in a responsible way – a view not confidently held about China.

Even so, experts caution that China’s leaders should not be automatically labelled paranoid for their speculations that Washington would want them gently eased out of power. After all, various Americans of many different political persuasions, Bill Clinton among them, have articulated the view that the Chinese Communist party is “on the wrong side of history.”

A statement like that seems almost guaranteed to make a Chinese politician suspicious about American intentions, especially in light of those modest enhancements to America’s military posture in the region, such as Marine deployments in Australia.

However, China now is in a different circumstance than it was in 1989, when it was on the sharp end of international censure for the Beijing crackdown. Concurrently, the US is much less willing to alienate this rising economic powerhouse, now that China’s strength makes its co-operation crucial on many security matters vital to the US.

So far, the Chinese government has suppressed news of Chen’s escape by blocking and deleting posts on popular microblog services. Regardless, many are already swept up by his cause. For example, Murong Xuecun, a well-known writer who had been part of an effort to break through the blockade around the house where Chen had been held after he was released from prison, has said, “People have been willing to take such risks for him because more and more people are so outraged by his mistreatment. He has become a figure for people, a representative of their own grievances.”

Murong says he expects government officials to spin a new narrative once news of his predicament becomes impossible to tamp down, criticizing Chen as an enemy of the state, as it did with artist Ai Weiwei, and Nobel-winning essayist and reform campaigner Liu Xiaobo.

Sensibly enough, Murong says in Chen’s case that might be a bit harder. “A blind person and peasant as a destabilising threat to the government? That would be a joke.”

As the bilateral meeting drew closer, the Financial Times argued that “the fate of Chen Guangcheng is not one of those minor blips that will be brushed under the diplomatic carpet. Instead, it is the public display of a clash of ideas that will be at the heart of international politics over the coming decade.”

By the end of the first week of May it will be much clearer just what the shape of the US-China relationship is going to look like for the near future. There may also be an answer to the seemingly more mundane question of just where Chen is going to practice his brand of human rights law in the near future. DM

Read more:

  • Fate of Chen at core of US-China relations in the Financial Times.
  • Clinton departs for China amid dissident controversy at Reuters.
  • Human rights loom over US-China talks in the Financial Times.
  • Obama, Silent on Dissident, Urges Freedom in China in The New York Times.
  • Can US contain flap over dissident, before Hillary Clinton gets to China? In the Christian Science Monitor.
  • Invisible man casts shadow over US-China talks at the AP.
  • Rights group: US asylum likely for China dissident at the AP
  • Blind dissident wants future in China after “miracle” escape: supporter at Reuters
  • In Crisis Over Dissident, US Sends Official to Beijing in The New York Times
  • Daring Circle, Now at Risk, Aided Activist’s Flight in China in The New York Times
  • Why America Must Save Chen Guangcheng at Foreign Policy.
  • With the Chen case, US credibility is on the line at the Washington Post.
  • In China, Chen Guangcheng case poses test for Premier Wen Jiabao’s reform talk at the Washington Post.
  • America’s consular refugees – Two’s a crowd at the Economist.
  • Chen Guangcheng slips loose – Postcard from an undisclosed location at the Economist.
  • China, US Rushing To Resolve Crisis Over Blind Activist Chen at the National Public Radio website.
  • Two Crises Highlight China’s Social Media Struggles at NPR.
  • Geithner, Clinton Won’t Cancel China Trip After Chen’s Escape at the Washington Post.

Photo: Protesters wearing sunglasses shout slogans in support of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng outside the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong on 30 April 2012. The United States faces a tense week in China as high-level talks on trade and global hot spots like Iran and North Korea open in the shadow of a blind Chinese activist’s bold escape from house arrest to seek U.S. protection in Beijing. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu.


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