When I wrote yesterday that Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng had just complicated the U.S.-China relationship, I had no idea quite how complicated things would actually get today.
Chen escaped from house arrest last month to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after having been held for about 19 months in a rural village in Shandong Province over his outspoken criticism of forced abortions and sterilizations under China’s one child policy. His supporters said he escaped last week and made his way about 300 miles to Beijing.
So far, so relatively clear. But things have taken a twist or two today with news first that Chen had agreed to leave the embassy with a guarantee made to the U.S. that he and his family would come to no harm, then that Chen had changed his mind and wanted to be allowed to leave China with his family out of fears for their safety. Complicating things further was the claim that Chen had been told by a U.S. official that his wife would be beaten to death if he didn’t leave the embassy. Chen is also said to have complained that he was left alone and without any U.S. officials present in a hospital following his departure, despite assurances to the contrary.
So what’s been going on? According to U.S. Assistant secretary of State Kurt Campbell, the question of what guarantees were given to the U.S. side over Chen’s safety is a “complex” one.
“The government of China views this as a matter between the government and a citizen of China. And so they don’t believe, just on a matter of state-to-state protocol, that this is an issue that should be negotiated, for instance between the United States and China,” Campbell NPR today. “And so our interactions, our discussions with them, were around parameters and commitments that they made both to us and to citizen Chen.”
Critics of the deal, if that is what we can call it, are skeptical of any commitments made by the Chinese government, and note reports that thugs armed with sticks were waiting for Chen’s wife and were ready to attack her and her children.
According to Bob Fu of U.S.-based organization ChinaAid, there have been reliable reports that Chen's decision to leave was a reluctant one because “serious threats to his immediate family members were made by Chinese government.” The Los Angeles Times notes that in Fu’s eyes, the decision reflected a U.S. decision to “abandon” Chen.
But Margaret Lewis, an associate professor at Seton Hall University School of Law in New Jersey, says she believes there’s a genuine chance the agreement could hold, at least for now.
“First, it’s important to emphasize that the situation is still developing. If indeed Chen stays in China, there’s still much we do not know about the location to which Chen and his family will be relocated or the exact terms of the relocation,” she told me. “That said, in the short-term, I feel confident that the pledge will stick. In the long-term, vigilant attention from the international community will be necessary. The high-level U.S. government involvement in reaching the deal and transferring him to the hospital bodes well for the spotlight remaining on Chen in the future. I’m also optimistic that the international community, both governmental and non-governmental, will remain vigilant.”
“Notably, this isn’t a situation like the convicted smuggler Lai Changxing who spent a decade in Canada before being repatriated to China for trial and ultimately punishment. As part of the deal returning Lai to China, the Chinese government reportedly agreed to let Canadian officials periodically monitor Lai in prison. Chen, in contrast, is under no formal legal constraints as he already fully served his prison sentence. Thus, people should have access to him as they would any other citizen. Of course, whether Chen will really have freedom of movement and unfettered access to visitors, both domestic and foreign, will only be proved over time.”
Taylor Fravel, a professor of political science at MIT and regular China watcher, agreed that it’s still too early to know for sure how Chinese officials will respond, especially to all the international attention.
“It’s hard to say at this point, given that the story continues to unfold,” he said. “China could decide to avoid additional international attention on Chen and relocate him, or it could decide to resist what Beijing would see as foreign interference and send him back to Shandong.”
Fravel also suggested that reports that China has demanded an apology from the U.S. for allowing Chen access to the embassy in this way should come as no surprise.
“China did demand an apology, but under the circumstances, that’s not surprising,” Fravel said. “It’s probably for domestic consumption and for potential leverage in the future. Bringing Chen into the embassy was unusual and not standard diplomatic practice, regardless of the circumstances.”
Either way, it doesn’t look like a public apology will be forthcoming, at least according to Campbell.
“We underscored on several occasions to them both publicly and privately this – that this was an extraordinary circumstance with very unusual parameters and we don’t expect it to be repeated,” Campbell said. “And I think we’re going to stand by that. And we’ve made very clear that we seek a strong, positive relationship between the United States and China, and I think they accept that understand our position.”
Still, such reassurances are unlikely to satisfy those who believe that the Obama administration has simply bungled the incident, including former senior State Department official Christian Whiton.
“The oddest thing is that he left the embassy,” Whiton told me this afternoon. “Our U.S. foreign service is consistently hostile to human rights in general and defectors fleeing via embassies in particular. It works against their goal of making the world safe for cocktail parties. Absent a White House that cares about human rights and political change in China, they get away with this.”
“I find it difficult to believe the Obama administration/foreign service explanation that Chen left on his own without prodding. I find it easy to believe Chen’s claim that threats from Beijing’s thugs were relayed to him by U.S. officials who wanted the easy way out,” he added.
Moving forward, Whiton suggested that Congress should demand Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appear in person, publicly and under oath to explain who did what and when in this incident.
Regardless of whether she does, this is undoubtedly one headache she could have done without after landing in Beijing for strategic talks meant to bolster ties between the two countries. And it has added another unwelcome twist to what has already been a rollercoaster ride for Chinese politics this year.
I’ll write more if there are any more developments.