As if things weren’t tense enough for the U.S.-China relationship already, a Chinese activist has just made things more complicated still.
Chen Guangcheng, a blind dissident lawyer who escaped from house arrest last month, is believed to be residing at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He had been held for some 19 months in a rural village in Shandong Province, but according to his supporters, he escaped one night last week and made his way about 300 miles to Beijing.
With U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arriving in China for the Strategic and Security Dialogue this week, Chen’s escape couldn’t have come at a much more awkward moment, and the question now is how to resolve Chen’s status in a way that makes neither China nor the U.S. look bad. That won’t be easy.
Regular Diplomat contributor Minxin Pei suggested that there are four theoretical options for Chen:seeking asylum in the United States, seeking asylum in another country, returning to his village with safety and freedom guarantees from the Chinese government, or staying inside the embassy indefinitely.
“I think only two are realistic: asylum in the U.S. or returning to his village or settling in another city in China,” Pei told me. “Chen apparently wants to stay in his home village. Asylum in the U.S. is not a good option for him.”
But Kelley Currie, a fellow at the Project 2049 Institute in Washington, says that staying in China would be fraught with risk for Chen.
“Nobody can guarantee his safety as long as he remains in China. But for Chen, such a situation would be a return to the status quo ante, so I don't think he sees these risks in the same light as the rest of us might,” Currie told me. “Nonetheless, his family’s and friends’ safety and well-being is key leverage that the authorities retain, and they haven’t been shy about using it in the past. He has to consider the risks to them as well, but the collective punishment of those around him appears to have only strengthened his resolve to date.”
According to U.S.-based rights group ChinaAid, at least two of Chen’s relatives have already been detained. VOA News reported yesterday that ChinaAid President Bob Fu had claimed “more than two dozen military police reportedly arrested Chen’s elder brother and nephew Friday morning, the same day Chen allegedly went into U.S. protection. Chen's wife, daughter and mother reportedly still are under very tight house arrest.”
So what impact will this have on Chen’s determination to pursue his cause?
“I don’t think that anyone should underestimate his resolve to continue working for justice in China,” Currie told me. “There are undoubtedly people in the central and maybe even provincial government who recognize that the officials in Linyi are way out of control and must be brought to heel for reasons that go beyond the particulars of Chen’s case, but because of bureaucratic inertia, corruption or whatever other reasons, they have been unwilling or unable to do anything up to now. This action forcing event changes the dynamics by raising the stakes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be easier for those who know this situation should be resolved in Chen's favor to take action to that effect.”
The United States has stayed relatively quiet on the issue, perhaps in part reflecting the reality that as Currie says, U.S. diplomats and policymakers find themselves in something of a no-win situation. And what should they do? Currie argues that they should “focus on pursuing a solution that provides Chen, his family and his colleagues with maximum protection. But any scenario where Chen stays in mainland China will put the U.S. in a position of responsibility for his safety despite their actual inability to ensure it.”
“One possible face-saving solution for everyone would be for Beijing to allow him and his family to lawfully immigrate to Hong Kong. He would arguably be much safer there, away from the reach of the horrible Linyi officials who have been tormenting his family, and would be able to attend law school, have access to international media, diplomats, etc., while technically remaining on Chinese soil and able to continue his work in support of the rule of law in China.
“If Chen would agree to this, it would probably be the best possible outcome for all the parties involved.”
Currie adds that U.S. officials should avoid the temptation to allow considerations over having a successful Strategic and Economic Dialogue trump other considerations on how to handle Chen’s case.
“This is a problem that China’s leadership brought upon themselves and we shouldn’t compromise his safety or desire to remain in China, whatever the risks, for short term diplomatic gains,” she says. “At the same time, the Chen and Bo Xilai situations should make it plain that the U.S. can’t act as though it’s business as usual during the dialogue, and there need to be some serious conversations with Chinese counterparts about why these things are happening in China now, how the U.S. has nothing to do with these events except that Chinese citizens keep looking to it to protect them from the predatory party state, and why that is the case.”
“If this kind of dialogue were to happen, it might actually be worth the cost of flying all those people to Beijing for a change,” she added.