Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng’s audacious escape from detention is likely to have as big an impact on US-China relations as it is having on the ruling party’s internal ideological conflicts.
“The fate of Chen Guangcheng is not one of those minor blips that will be brushed under the diplomatic carpet,” notes a leading analyst. “Instead, it is the public display of a clash of ideas that will be at the heart of international politics over the coming decade.”
“As China’s power grows, it is tempting to take the realist line that human rights should take a back seat to the important business that the two countries must conduct,” notes the FT’s Geoff Dyer:
In his recent book On China, Henry Kissinger urged the two Pacific powers to come together in a community of interests. Hillary Clinton flirted with the same idea when she first became secretary of state, arguing that human rights “can’t interfere” with other vital issues on the US-China agenda.
Yet the reality is that human rights and political ideas are at the core of the relationship between the two countries.
The so-called pivot to Asia that the Obama administration is implementing is not just about sending a few marines to Australia. Mr Obama has made it crystal clear it is part of a long-term project to underpin economic and political freedom in the region. The fact that the only potential challenger to this US-led order is a one-party state is not a side-issue, but a central pre-occupation for American strategists.
“Chen is often described as a “dissident,” but that is a misnomer,” he notes:
Despite years of brutal treatment for seeking to bring attention to those victimized by China’s “one-child” policy, he has never established a political party or organization. He has never advocated overthrowing the Communist Party. In the video he posted online after his escape, he says that the injustices his family experienced “hurt the image of our Party.” And the first thing he told me after escaping was that he wanted the outside the world to know that he was not going to leave China but to “fight to the end for the freedom of my family. .?.?. I want to live a normal life as a Chinese citizen with my family.”
The case will be a test of the Obama administration’s twin-track approach to engaging authoritarian regimes like China while reserving the right to promote democracy and human rights.
“Though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton favors ‘principled pragmatism’, she is an outspoken critic of China’s human rights record – and of Chen’s plight,” one analyst notes:
But a deep freeze between the world’s two biggest economies would be bad for the world. Besides, there is a deep economic co-dependency. While China’s overall trade surplus has been shrinking, the trade gap with Uncle Sam has actually widened. It hit a record $299 billion in the 12 months to February 2012, Reuters data shows.
A face-saving solution is certainly possible. If Beijing gives Chen some guarantees that he and his family will be left alone, he could return to his Shandong village. There are precedents: Lai Changxing, a ringleader in a notorious corruption ring, was extradited from Canada on the promise that he wouldn’t be put to death. Beijing could even blame Chen’s captivity on wayward local officials, and burnish its own credentials for upholding the rule of law.
The affair represents “a pivotal moment for U.S. human rights diplomacy,’ says ChinaAid’s Fu. “The United States must stand firmly with this broadly popular individual or risk losing credibility as a defender of freedom and the rule of law.”
While Fu suspects that Chen may be released into US custody as soon as this week, other observers aren’t so sure.
“If they were to let him go, what does that mean? That means Beijing will probably be succumbing to any such attempt to seek asylum in the American Embassy,” Zhu Feng, an expert on U.S.-China relations at Beijing University, tells the Wall Street Journal:
Beijing wouldn’t relish any appearance it is kowtowing to Washington just before its sensitive once-a-decade leadership transition beginning late this year.
“There’s not a lot of precedent for the U.S. treating China as a good-faith negotiating partner on human-rights issues,” says Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based human-rights researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The Chinese government might be sincere in promising to protect Mr. Chen and his family, he said, “but the way the case has been handled up till now makes it hard to trust any commitments they make to rule of law.”
Susan Shirk, who served as a deputy assistant state secretary under Bill Clinton, says that although allowing Mr. Chen to stay in China “would be the best outcome,” she believes the lack of any mechanism that would allow the U.S. to monitor and ensure his safety was highly problematic.
ChinaAid is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.