China: Chen Guangcheng and US Diplomatic Talks

Chen Guangcheg, a Chinese activist under house arrest since September 2010 for opposing forced abortions, has been put under US diplomatic protection in the US Embassy in Beijing.

Chen Guangcheng Escapes Chinese Officials

After 19 moths of stifling informal detention, the blind activists was able to escape after nearly 20 hours of climbing, crawling and walking.  Chen does not seek refuge in America or any form of political asylum in any country; rather, he wishes to stay in China and demand redress for years of illegal persecution.  Persisting in his endeavor to continue his efforts for reform in Chinese society, the activist has nevertheless jeopardized the safety of his family because of his escape.  With China’s already questionable relationship with various forms of human rights violations, there are mounting fears that Chen’s family will endure the worst of officials’ humiliated anger over Chen’s escape.  Despite the consequences for the actions undertaken, Chen’s escape has become a symbol for the Chinese people, becoming a glorified David versus Goliath analogy in which the blind man has defeated the Goliath of ruling Communist Party controls.  Mirroring the man who stood defiant in front a line of army tanks near Tiananmen Square after the crackdown in 1989, Chen represents yet another display of social outrage at the backwards and oppressive nature of China.

“Chen Guangcheng’s escape was a miracle, hard to believe unless you heard him tell the story himself.  He had to climb over eight walls and over a dozen barriers by himself, tripping and falling hundreds of times for 19 hours until he crossed a stream and finally escaped from his village.” – Guo Yushan, Beijing-based researcher

Chen’s unwillingness to leave has become a complication for any negotiations between Washington and Beijing over his fate, as well as creating a tense predicament for the scheduled trip of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to China.  Chen’s escape threatens to overshadow high-level talks involving Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, schedule to take place in Beijing later this week.  Chen’s role as a human rights activist, as well as his own experience with illegal persecution, will prove a pivotal movement for US human rights diplomacy.  With China-US relations improving lately over increased negotiations over nuclear talks and Myanmar sanctions, the situation presents an extraordinary test for Obama’s administration’s approach to relations with China, creating a strain between upholding human rights and maintaining steady ties with Beijing.  Moreover, the blind activist’s flight from detention comes at a highly sensitive time for Chinese authorities.  The ruling Communist Party has been struck by scandal involving former high-ranking leader Bo Xilai, whose wife is under investigation in relation to the mysterious death of a British businessman.  The downfall of Bo, being investigated in connection with serious disciplinary violations, has created shock waves ahead of a leadership transition in China this year, an event that transpires only once in 10 years.

“There’s not a lot of precedent for the US treating China as a good-faith negotiation partner on human-rights issues, but the way the case has been handled up till now makes it hard ot trust any commitment they make to rule of law.” – Joshua Rosenzweig, Chinese University of Hong Kong human-rights researcher

In retrospect, for the Obama administration to agree to a deal in which Beijing would provide Chen with an iron-clad guarantee of safety for himself and his family, while also vigorously pursuing the people allegedly responsibly for mistreating him, the diplomatic consequences are extremely risky.  Allowing Chen to stay in China is the best outcome from this development but the lack of any mechanism through which the US would be able to monitor and ensure his safety is highly problematic.  China’s handling of the 2008 financial crisis and its fast economic growth has given many officials confidence, unwilling to succumb to foreign pressures such as they did in 1989.  In 1989, the US Embassy sheltered the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi and his wife in the wake of Tiananmen Square.  They were able to depart for the US in 1990, after a year of negotiations between Washington and Beijing and an offer from Japan to provide aid to China in exchange for their release.

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