China Power

Chen Guangcheng Update

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China Power

Chen Guangcheng Update

As the Chen Guangcheng drama unfolds, Truman National Security fellow Michael Lieberman offers his take.

The Diplomat spoke with Michael Lieberman, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project, about the case of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng.


What is your sense of the situation overall?

From what we can say now, this situation highlights, perhaps counterintuitively, the strong working relationship between U.S. and Chinese officials. This was the last thing either wanted in the midst of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Yet they were able to work quickly to resolve a situation that could have dragged on for months and seriously undermined other pressing issues between them.

One can also say that this was a savvy and well-planned effort by Chen and his supporters to highlight his and other dissidents’ plight at a time when both the U.S. and China sensitivities were at their height. It remains to be seen whether events will transpire as they hoped. At best, they will have succeeded in drawing concrete attention to China’s treatment of its dissidents and heightening pressure to respond less repressively. At worst, they may provoke a backlash from Chinese hardliners and expaserate U.S. officials, who have preferred a quieter (and in their view more effective) approach.  

How do you feel the Obama administration handled the situation?

The administration faced an extraordinarily fraught situation and responded, as best we can tell, with considerable skill. The insistence on assurances from Chinese security personnel, personal involvement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the outside representation of Chen by an independent advocate, Jerome Cohen, reflect a high-level and comprehensive approach that sought to cover all the bases. In this they were able to draw upon the trust they have developed with China on human rights issues, which has been characterized less by finger-pointing than by quiet engagement.

Of course, any assessment of the administration’s approach will depend on Chen’s ultimate fate. If the Chinese in fact live up to their end of the bargain and let Chen study law in peace with his family, then this will count as a great success. It remains to be seen whether the Chinese will honor their bargain or find ways to erode it. If they do we can be sure that the Administration will not quietly ignore that, nor will Chen’s supporters.

There our multiple conflicting statements at present over Chen's intentions. Some have been quoted that he wished to leave China. Others have stated he never wanted to leave China. What would be the best course of action given the circumstances? Can the Obama administration guarantee his safety outside its embassy gates and that China will keep its promises?

It's not clear precisely what accounts for the multiple conflicting statements at this time. It could be to some degree the “fog of crisis” that accompanies such events, or even just the way Chen is piecing together various bits of information that have come his way from a variety of sources. Given the attention this has received from Clinton, Campbell, Locke and others, the U.S. will be watching Chen closely. Top U.S. officials have spent considerable time and effort on this matter and have put their credibility behind the agreement. While there's no way for the U.S. to unconditionally guarantee that China will honor it, the Chinese can be sure that the U.S. will respond assertively if they seek to renege. What will be interesting to see is how the different camps within China now respond. We've seen the Party’s fissures brought to the fore with the Bo Xilai affair, and the fallout from that crisis has yet to settle. Whether this will exacerbate internal tensions further and pit various factions against one another in a way that implicates Chen’s fate will be another set of issues for the U.S. to monitor.

There are also reports that Chinese officials are asking for an apology from the U.S. government. Is this more for a domestic audience to demonstrate control or a true request?

The Chinese know full well that the U.S. will not issue an apology for its role, which the Chinese have vaguely characterized as assisting Chen through some “abnormal” means. What's curious is whether this is a face-saving gesture by those responsible for Chen in China to blame the U.S. for their improbable lapses in security, or whether it signals an early effort to distance itself from the agreement. This episode is a further embarrassment to China ahead of its leadership transition and its leaders can be seen as responding, predictably, by blaming a foreign power. While the lack of a U.S. response could be seen as an additional blow, the demand is likely intended for the Chinese audience to deflect any perceptions of incompetence or lack of control.