No good deed goes unpunished; this must be what US Ambassador to China Gary Locke must have been thinking as a firestorm of criticism erupted over his embassy’s handling of the Chen Guangcheng case. Under great pressure, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner arriving for high profile talks with China’s leadership, the embassy and colleagues in the State Department including Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Kurt Campbell had negotiated a delicate deal with Chinese counterparts that Chen accepted. Negotiated with the involvement of top legal scholar Jerome Cohen, and based on a similar agreement reached in the case of another prominent dissident (Ai Weiwei), it looked like a big win for the US, a big step forward in US-China relations, and a solution to the problems of a man whose courageous struggle against injustice had won the admiration and sympathy of people around the world.
24 hours later, the deal is a heap of rubble, US-Chinese relations have been dinged and Chen is complaining to reporters that the US embassy abandoned him and saying that he wants to leave China with Secretary Clinton.
Via Meadia hopes that this tangled story can still have a happy ending — and we have nothing but respect for the skills and the intentions of the US officials working on this case — but at the moment this has to rank as one of the more awkward diplomatic messes of recent years.
Chen Guangcheng is the second high profile Chinese citizen to have sought shelter in a US diplomatic facility and, after negotiations, to return to Chinese authorities. The first, Wang Lijun, was Bo Xilai’s right hand man, who entered the US consulate in Chengdu in February. Wang returned to China — and to custody — when he was assured that he would be in Beijing’s hands rather than in the custody of local officials in Chongqing where, he believed, he faced death from vengeful Bo Xilai allies.
Chen exited the embassy after being assured that he, too, would be looked after by Beijing rather than being turned over to the local authorities in Shandong province. Under the terms of the agreement, Chen and his family would be resettled in another part of China, US officials could visit him to monitor compliance, and the self-taught blind lawyer will have access to further university education. Chen left the embassy in a very high profile way; Ambassador Gary Locke rode with him to the hospital. Old diplomatic hands know that this was a powerful signal — of support for Chen, and of confidence that the deal was a good one and that the prestige and influence of the embassy were solidly committed to making it work.
Then came the bad news: CNN reports that from his hospital bed Chen shared some reflections that the embassy presumably wishes he had kept to himself:
“The Embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised to be with me at the hospital,” he said. “But this afternoon, soon after we got here, they were all gone.”
He said he was “very disappointed” in the U.S. government and felt “a little” that he had been lied to by the Embassy.
The news coverage early Wednesday morning US time lauded the administration, quoting Chen as saying that he wanted to kiss Hillary Clinton. By nightfall the tone changed, with an opinion piece on CNN by Frida Ghitis asking “Did Obama Betray a Chinese Hero?” There were conflicting reports on what the embassy staff said to Chen, over the nature of threats the Chinese allegedly made to Chen’s wife, and on whether Chen wished to remain in China or to be free to go to the United States.
Meanwhile, the Chinese press, which had been keeping the incident hush-hush even as the Great Firewall censors suppressed any references to “blind” on the internet, switched directions and ran with accusations that in aiding Chen, embassy staff violated the law and normal diplomatic procedure. The Foreign Ministry demanded an apology. An LA Times report sums it up:
“It should be pointed out that Chen Guangcheng, a Chinese citizen, was taken by the U.S. side to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing via abnormal means, and the Chinese side is strongly dissatisfied with the move,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin.
“What the U.S. side has done has interfered in the domestic affairs of China, and the Chinese side will never accept it,” Liu said at a briefing in Beijing.
China demands that U.S. authorities investigate their handling of the Chen affair, hold anyone who violated international protocol accountable and provide guarantees that similar actions never recur, Liu said.
The official New China News Agency also reported that Beijing wants an apology from Washington over the incident.
Complicating matters further is the fact that Chen’s most trusted US ally and representative is Bob Fu, an evangelical China-born Christian who works on behalf of persecuted Christians in illegal house churches in China. Chen’s escape was apparently helped by an “underground railroad” of Chinese Christians aided by Fu.
Fu bases his ministry in a place whose name is familiar to Americans: Midland, Texas, the longtime home of George W. Bush. He is reported to be en route to Washington to testify before Congress about the affair. Millions of American Christians, some of whom do not follow the foreign news with great care, will be following this news closely. Chen’s advocacy for Chinese women forced into sterilization and/or abortions for violating China’s one-child policy has electrified conservative Christians across the United States. Chen is a rare crossover figure: a hero to liberal European intellectuals and to conservative American mega-church members. While not as famous as the Dalai Lama, Chen’s support in the United States is if anything deeper, stronger, and more capable of sustaining a powerful political movement than the support of the exiled Tibetan leader.
Should Fu’s testimony be critical in any way of the State Department’s handling of the affair, the Romney campaign will have been handed a serious campaign issue; Fu is well known and well respected on the Hill, as MSNBC reports:
“Bob Fu is one of the most credible people you’ll ever find about what is going on in China,” said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who chairs the Human Rights Subcommittee within the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. “He’s very well connected and knows people inside of China who are the agents of reform — people like Chen who (take action) because they want a better China.”
Meanwhile, Jerome Cohen, a well known China legal scholar (and former WRM colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations) gives a version of events that supports State Department claims that Chen left the embassy voluntarily, was not pressured by US officials, and accepted the negotiated agreement with the intention of staying in China. Cohen, who was involved in the discussions at Chen’s request, is well respected — and not just by those who, like me, have known him and his work for many years. According to Cohen, the deal originally accepted by Chen was modeled on an arrangement made by the famous dissident Ai Weiwei which has allowed Ai to stay in the country and participate, carefully, in political and cultural life.
The Ai deal was seen by Cohen and others as part of an incremental strategy to open the doors to wider public freedom in China. On the one hand, many in the government do not want the international obloquy that comes with harsh repression; on the other, many dissidents want to live at home rather than in exile. A little flexibility on both sides, and arrangements can be made.
This seems to be what the embassy staff and Chen’s advisers like Cohen were working toward, and on the (admittedly skimpy and conflicting) evidence now available, it looks like an arrangement of this kind was roughly hammered out, and Chen accepted it.
Why the change of heart? We don’t really know, but those who have never spent time in dictatorial countries can have little conception of just how harsh and brutal their police authorities can be, and how good they are at threatening and browbeating those whom they wish to control.
My own very limited encounters with those systems suggest a possible scenario: at some point one or more internal police officials either got to his wife or got to Chen after he’d left the embassy and told him in the most bloodcurdling and alarming way that he was under threat, that they would be watching and waiting, and that his wife and family would meet very unpleasant fates once the security forces got him back out of Beijing. And they would have told him in a very chilling way that he was not to tell anyone about this little conversation.
The liberal do-gooding Foreign Ministry types here in Beijing, the security officials would have told Chen and his wife, talk very pretty, but once you get out of the glare of the television lights, you will be ours again. Out there in the provinces, nobody hears you when you scream.
After that kind of talk, a weary and blind man, much more worried about the safety of his family than about anything that would happen to him, might well change his mind about staying in China — and might also need to give a good reason for the change of mind without mentioning any recent encounters with the security forces. This is a completely speculative theory with no evidence, and other explanations are possible. But it fits the known facts.
It may take some time for the dust to settle on this one; the State Department is doubling down. Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, could not have been more explicit:
“I was there. Chen made the decision to leave the Embassy after he knew his family was safe and at the hospital waiting for him, and after twice being asked by [U.S. Ambassador to China Gary] Locke if he was ready to go… He said, ‘zou,’ – let’s go. We were all there as witnesses to his decision, and he hugged and thanked us all.”
Two Flights, Two Crises
Wang Lijun’s flight and release triggered a massive factional struggle at the top of the national leadership, shattered the facade of stability the Party had hoped to build around its upcoming leadership transition, and exposed some of the leadership’s deepest fissures and flaws to global, and to Chinese, inspection.
Chen’s flight may not reverberate as deeply in China itself — dissidents are often better known and more closely followed outside the country than in — but the incident appears to have given hardliners a desperately needed issue, and the consequences for Chinese politics, US-China relations and the political fortunes of the Obama administration could be serious.
As far as one can tell at this point, the same factional divides that erupted following the Wang Lijun affair are shaping the response to Chen Guangcheng’s daring flight. The modernizers used the Wang affair to score points and push their agenda against the hardline nationalists linked to Bo Xilai; in the Chen affair the hardliners are fighting back.
The embassy’s negotiating partners in the Chen affair were from the Foreign Ministry, though as the negotiations reached their final stages other ministries were called on for buy-in. These days in China, Foreign Ministry types usually speak English well. Many have been educated in the United States under the same professors who taught their State Department colleagues. Having lived and traveled widely abroad, they see the advantages that China will gain from integration into the global system, and they want China’s domestic structure to look more like Europe and the English-speaking world.
Think of American diplomats who’ve spent much of their career abroad, love Europe and would like to see the US become more “international” in its thinking and policy. The Foreign Ministry in China has some of the same kind of position in Chinese life — and its officials are viewed by much of the public the way Jacksonians look at the “striped pants pinkos” and “cookie-pushers” in our State Department.
The cookie-pusher to cookie-pusher talks went well, and the original deal was agreed. That initial success tells us something important about the attitudes of China’s modernizers. Their willingness to resolve this issue through a compromise is the latest strong signal that the modernizing, reform-oriented wing of the leadership is not eager to push back against the United States, despite what many in China feel is an aggressive and overbearing US regional policy. Ten or twenty years ago, China would likely have canceled the Clinton visit if the Japanese premier were simultaneously visiting Washington and unveiling new military cooperation with the US. The diplomatic air would have been full of threats and curses. Despite all the press chatter about a rising China, there are many powerful people in China today who accept a far greater degree of American leadership in the Pacific security order than China ever did in the past.
For now, there are a lot of people in the government who want China to concentrate of economic growth; they do not want a fight with Number One. This wing of the Chinese ruling establishment is ready for pragmatic and cooperative relations with the US, and they are not opposed to carefully measured responses to US pressure for more political space and dissent within China. They don’t want China to change too fast, but they often privately agree with US arguments that a more open China would ultimately be a more stable and more successful China.
But the moderates are not alone, and despite the fall of Bo Xilai, there are many people in the Party and beyond who think China needs to stand up and to oppose American pretensions and policies more forcefully. Turning the Chen agreement against both the US and the people they no doubt regard as lily livered, liberal, metrosexual appeasers in the Foreign Ministry is an opportunity to regain some momentum.
The modernizers’ policy of tolerating a little bit of extra dissent and using the US as an interlocutor in negotiations between dissidents and the state is anathema to the old school: it smells of the “unequal treaties” which gave foreign ambassadors and their pet Chinese (often Christian converts) special protections and immunities. The opportunity to spoil Secretary Clinton’s visit and cause massive embarrassment to their domestic Chinese enemies as well as to the United States is very attractive to these people; the Chen incident offered an excellent way to strike back.
Most US press commentary naturally enough focuses on how embarrassing the collapse of the Chen deal could be for the Obama administration; the hardliners in China are much more interested in the embarrassment the deal produces for their own opponents at home. The Chinese government will have a hard time acknowledging in public that it is negotiating with America about how to treat Chinese dissidents in China — but neither can it back away from the deal without looking weak and ineffectual to both its own people and the Americans.
The Chen case encapsulates the struggle between the two wings of the Chinese establishment. Chen has been persecuted by brutal and unaccountable local officials; in the past, his activism has led the central government to punish local officials who violated written Chinese law in their sterilization and abortion efforts.
By threatening Chen and family, the hardliners are using their strengths — a network of officials, security types and powerful economic interests — to demonstrate that the modernizers are not really in charge of things in China and can’t speak for the country. They control the ground, they are saying, the real life of the country. The modernizers are up in the clouds somewhere. Chen, they have pointed out to the activist and his family, will have to live on the ground; he can’t stay up in the clouds forever.
Chen, with an 80 year old widowed mother being beaten by security forces and watched by guards wherever she goes, and with a wife and children exposed to their power, knows that the stakes in this case are so high for China’s local fiefs and Party hacks that they will do literally anything to him and his family to make their point. He knows very well how unscrupulous they are; they have apparently convinced him that the central government cannot or will not protect him.
Chen is an extremely intelligent man and his dedication and courage are genuinely awe inspiring. But he has not spent much time at the center of high profile international negotiations. A life of uncertainty and restraint punctuated by beatings was followed by an escape in which, among other things, this blind man wandered over unfamiliar land, falling, he says, more than 200 times. From there he fell into the center of a high profile diplomatic maelstrom in which some of the world’s most experienced negotiators were handling his case. One suspects things moved faster than he was ready to handle — he is a man accustomed to lots of time to reflect. Life in prison moves slowly; in the boondocks people have time to think about their big life decisions. You do things slowly and reflectively.
In the US embassy in Beijing, Chen was a fish out of water. He was with people he didn’t know well; there are large cultural gaps — and no time to work them out slowly. Since then, he appears to have had some severe shocks, and it is deep, sincere and well grounded fear that now moves him to speak as he does.
The hardliners took some heavy blows after Wang Lijun entered the American consulate in Chengdu. They are out for revenge now after Chen’s arrival in our embassy in Beijing. The next few days will tell us whether they will succeed.
[Image courtesy Shutterstock.]
[UPDATE: The initial version of this post stated that that Wang Lijun entered the U.S. Consulate last fall, and not in February. This error has been corrected.]