Chen Guangcheng Mystery Deepens
Image Credit: VOA News

Chen Guangcheng Mystery Deepens


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.

May 6, 2012 at 14:11

And yes, we have freedom and democracy here in the Philippines, unlike there in your “workers’ paradise” where any criticism of your government will get you in prison, or worse. Haha, you are so pathetic in your cover-up of your country’s crimes, you cannot even get the facts and your English right. Get your dirty hands and ass out of Tibet and Scarborough Shoal. Genuine freedom and democracy for Tibet and the Tibetan people!

May 6, 2012 at 14:06

@Chan: Ask any decent English and logic professor if your sentences are in correct English. Understand? Hey, did you get your pay from your fellow Chinese communist imperialists?

John Chan
May 6, 2012 at 13:08

@ archangel9151982,
There is no freedom, human rights and democracy in Philippines; there are only kleptocracy and American wannabes in Philippines.

Your second sentence is not making sense at all, are you saying Chen, Liu, Tibet and the West Philippines Sea are same as Mao? And how can non-human like Tibet and the West Philippines Sea commit atrocities? Is it Filipino way of coherent English?

Furthermore how can one rant to get? One only can rant to rave, is it another example of Filipino coherent English? It is puzzling what kind of English they teach in Philippines.

May 6, 2012 at 09:26

Another piece of nonsense from a paid hack by the PRC. Those atrocities committed by Mao and his ilk are the same about Chen Guangcheng and Liu Xiaobo, Tibet and the West Philippine Sea. They are about HUMAN RIGHTS(do you know the meaning of the term?), FREEDOM, AND DEMOCRACY. And yes, please write in coherent English because you don’t make sense. You’re just ranting to get your quota from your fellow chinese communist imperialists. Understand? :-)

John Chan
May 4, 2012 at 14:03

@ archangel9151982,
“do not change the topic” you said, then why did you change the topic from Chen to the Philippines’ claim in the South China Sea? Is it because your English flawed in presentation logic?

“Great Leap Forward” “Culture Revolution” and “Tiananmen Incident” are the political events in China in the course of breaking free the yoke imposed on China by the imperialist Westpac in the last two hundred years, don’t you know that?

Philippines is a Westerners’ creation without the participation of the indigenous people, Asians should help the indigenous Filipinos to break free from the yoke of the corrupt regime in Manila.

May 4, 2012 at 06:47

@John Chan: Oh nonsense. You are a bully and admit it. And please, do not change the topic. Remember the so-called “Great Leap Forward” and the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”? And your Tiananmen Massacre? Get out of my country’s territory! And get out of Tibet! Genuine freedom and independence for Tibet! (And get your English right.) :-)

John Chan
May 3, 2012 at 23:26

@Leonard R,
You know nothing about Chinese, your comment just demonstrates how ignorant you are about China and Chinese; you are here to destroy the peace of world using China as a fall guy.

Chen and his family are allowed to go to the USA freely. What a joke about you rant on Chen’s safety.

John Chan
May 3, 2012 at 23:17

@ archangel9151982,
Nobody abuses Chen, he was merely under house arrest due to he is a national security risk, while Philippines is carrying massacre to quell Islam’s revote, that is really an example of human right abuse.

Pointing fingers to the others is a bad way to white wash Philippines’ own dirty laundry.

John Chan
May 3, 2012 at 23:06

Chen Guangcheng and his family are allowed to go to the USA now. He has made it, he successfully fool the American to allow him jump the immigration queue and go to USA without proper procedure and meeting the immigrations requirements like all other Chinese who are lining up patiently.

USA embassy admitted they played a major role in the Chen’s escape; it is an open contempt of China’s sovereignty. It is disgusting that Chinese government did not expel a bunch of USA diplomats in retaliation.

Chen expecting to achieve his political agenda in an armchair makes one wonder how serious is his commitment to human rights activism. LXB and Ai Weiwei demonstrated way more integrity than this Chen.

John Chan
May 3, 2012 at 22:36

“John Chan” most likely works for the CIA, character sabotage is one of the procedures CIA employed to overthrow democratically elected governments in the Central America where USA and its brutal cronies successfully plunged Central America nations in decades of satanic massacres, raps and burnings starting 1970s.

He is showing us his crafty old hands.

May 3, 2012 at 20:31

Without one child policy( force abortions), the world will be flood with 2 or 3 billion of more human on earth.
How about environmental and suitabilities issues.
morally not right but that is the way china need to go!!!

May 3, 2012 at 03:36

Democratic countries have an obligation to give refuge to people who are in danger from their own governments. We should send a message to autocratic countries that if they do not respect human rights, we are at least trying to do our best to respect them. I am ashamed that our not-so-bright President Noynoy Aquino decided to turn a blind eye to the struggle for democracy and human rights in other countries by not attending the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010, just to try to appease China into staying the execution of three Filipino drug traffickers, to no avail. Now see where that appeasement led. China is again trying to bully my country and others by trying to claim the entire South China Sea and violating my country’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Oro Invictus
May 3, 2012 at 01:54

@ “John Chan”

I’m not certain who you are, but I do know you aren’t John Chan; I’m not sure if you are trying to satirize him or simply denigrate him by putting forward objectionable claims in the worst-possible light (though, admittedly, the actual messages are often effectively the same as the real John Chan’s, though he tries [poorly] to portray his claims so as not to appear so overtly objectionable). I’m not sure if you are a troll or someone who is simply annoyed by John Chan’s constant and bellicose exhortations, but you need to stop; no matter how distasteful you may find John Chan’s statements, such behaviour is simply uncalled for and actively undermines any constructive dialogue here. I realize that my admonishments are unlikely to make you stop, however I would be remiss if I did not say something at least once, particularly in the absence of others taking issue with such actions.

Oro Invictus
May 3, 2012 at 01:40

While the exact circumstances are unclear, from what is known makes the current sequence of events unsurprising (though, of course, hindsight’s 20/20 and whatnot).

On the one hand, this entire episode has served as another grievous black mark on the PRC’s attempts to display itself as a country guided by law and compassion; even if the allegations of threats by officials to kill Chen’s wife prove false (which, given the history of the PRC, it would actually surprise me if these allegations weren’t true), PRC officials still treated Chen like a fugitive and threatened to return his family to house arrest, even though they themselves admitted that Chen and his family’s detention was illegal (such that not only was he not breaking the law leaving an illegal holding, but they also threatened to preform an act that was, by their own admission, illegal to force him back). That they also demanded an apology from the US whom, since Chen was (once again, by their won admission) not a fugitive and thus well within his rights to seek shelter in the US embassy, did nothing illegal whatsoever (unless you believe in what those rabid and paranoid fanatics claim, that the CIA staged the whole thing [which sounds strangely like something one would hear from a hard-line Soviet official during the 50s, which is peculiar considering how often the CPC alleges others of "Cold War mindsets"], something which would be totally irrational and only complicate matters for the US).

What is more difficult to discern is the true intentions of the US’ actions in all this; leaving fanciful notions of morality on their part aside, examining the situation pragmatically still does not make it entirely clear what judgments the various US officials had formed. Effectively, the two things being weighed by the US (under a simple model of the situation) was choosing whether the good PR garnered internationally and in the US for helping Chen outweighed the damage to US-PRC relations; yet, for this, it is not clear which decision they came to. Now, had Chen been requesting asylum from the beginning, it would be clear that the US decided to not harm ties with the PRC over playing the defender of human rights, yet the fact that Chen has apparently sought to stay in the PRC complicates this; if Chen did not request asylum, there would be little sense in the US riling up the PRC by removing him from the country when he did not wish to (thus lessening much of the good PR the US would gain by helping him). Indeed, in the absence of his seeking to leave the PRC, it would be much simpler and diplomatically tenable to extract guarantees of safety from the CPC and then turning him over, allowing the US to claim it helped a dissident ensure his rights while not treading on the CPC’s toes; for this reason, it would not surprise me if the US diplomats at the embassy did indeed, contrary to the official line, relay the threats of the PRC to harm his wife should Chen not leave, to coerce him to leave willingly.

Now that Chen is seeking asylum for himself and his family though, the US government will find it much harder to proceed without making clear whether it values human rights (or, at least, the goodwill defense of it creates) over its relations with the PRC; in this regard, I imagine the US will likely seek the former (now with the level of international attention and the domestic politics of the US regarding the situation having reached a tempo with this newest deal unraveling). The US, though, will be constrained in this by the fact that Chen is no longer under their jurisdiction; however, as long as the US makes concrete and overt efforts to facilitate Chen’s desire to leave the PRC (which, once again, is totally legal since he has not broken any laws), it will have sufficiently redeemed itself in the eyes of most observers (though some ill-will will invariably still exist for handing him over in the first place). This means that the ball will solely be in the PRC’s court, as any decision to illegally prevent Chen and his family from leaving will be met with international and domestic censure (though, I suspect, not nearly to the extent befitting such grievous violations of human rights), though the CPC may be willing to endure this to prevent any sort of precedent from being made by Chen (as well as placating hard-liners in the party).

Intriguingly though, the CPC deciding to resist attempts by Chen to leave, particularly if it continues to insist the US apologize, could simply make the US more resolved to assist Chen. The US is, for better or worse (though, in the long-run, I’d argue for the worse), a nation borne from competition and adversity, and nothing riles its citizenry like being challenged or suffering slights (real or perceived) from others; the US thrives on competition, it is an entity perfectly suited to the discord of the modern age (which is, perhaps, why it has seen such troubles in the absence of a rival like the Soviet Union). Thus, the CPC should be careful how defiant a tone it strikes with them, less because of any issue of moral authority (though, admittedly, while it is hard to call the US a saint it is harder still to call the recent actions of the CPC anything but downright atrocious) and moreso because it risks hard-line attitudes gaining greater traction in the US. While I would like to see Chen and his family to be able to live freely and safely in the place where they feel is best, I would not want to see attitudes so markedly harden and the international situation made more precarious in the process.

John Chan
May 3, 2012 at 01:37

The world will hear news of Chen and his family’s deaths due to sudden illness like the death of Xue Jinbo. One blinded man is doing everything for human rights in China. When do the other Chinese people will follow?

Leonard R.
May 3, 2012 at 00:19

From the article:: ““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.”

This has been handled very stupidly. Chen put himself under US protection.
The US should have protected him. It is no position to guarantee the safety
of his family. But at least it could have protected him. By fleeing custody, Chen knew
what could happen to his family.

State has disgraced itself here.

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