The Debate

The U.S. and Chen Guangcheng

Chen Guangcheng is to be allowed to apply to study abroad. But the U.S. handling of his situation was mixed.

A potential diplomatic flashpoint between the U.S. and China looks to have been avoided with news that a Chinese activist will be allowed to apply to study abroad.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed news that Chen Guangcheng, who walked out of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Thursday following a deal between the U.S. and China, would be allowed to apply through “normal channels.”

Clinton and other officials will no doubt be breathing a huge sigh of relief after the Obama administration came under fire yesterday when Chen started to back away from the agreement, saying that he wanted to leave China and that he was “very disappointed” with the U.S. Adding to the drama, Chen called in to a U.S. Congressional hearing to list his grievances.

Was Chen right to be disappointed? I asked Kelley Currie at the Project 2049 Institute, who has been following this closely and offered some great commentary to The Diplomat, for her thoughts on how the U.S. handled all of this.

“First, I have to say that they have achieved what appears to be a good outcome for Chen at the moment, but we are far from finished with this, and even if Chen and his family make it safely to the U.S., there are still the underlying problems of the completely lawless behavior in Linyi, the detention and abuse of Chen’s friends and family members, and Chen’s ultimate ability to return home to China when he is ready to do so, and live there unmolested. It’s unclear what arrangements have been made to deal with these issues and eventualities, and these are all matters that are of great importance to Chen. I look forward to further announcements from the U.S. in coming days regarding how these issues are going to be handled. 


“Second, it’s clear that there was failure of process and some relatively poor judgment used on Wednesday in Beijing. The U.S. side shouldn’t have been “spiking the football” with their Wednesday announcements, especially since they were only at about mid-field. Their haste in trying to get a deal done before Secretary Clinton arrived, and their failure to work out details regarding access to and regularized contact with Chen, allowed the situation to blow up overnight in Beijing and during the workday in the U.S. Some of us were already communicating to the State Department that there were distress calls coming from Chen, even as they were briefing us on their innovative solution, and these warning flares were treated rather dismissively and defensively. Likewise, it was an incredibly bad idea to reveal at this point the level of detail that was revealed about how Chen entered the embassy. These revelations served to further embarrass Chinese security officials who had already been humiliated by Chen’s initial escape. It makes no sense to needlessly antagonize the coercive elements of the Chinese party-state under these circumstances.

“In the end, I would rather have a good outcome for Chen than some pristine process, but it’s pretty clear to me that much of the drama of the past two days could have been avoided if the U.S. side hadn’t let themselves gotten themselves caught up in false deadlines around the Strategic Dialogue, if they had taken a more circumspect approach in rolling out the deal, and if they had worked out a few key details before letting Chen walk out of the embassy.”