Chen Guangcheng Goes to Washington

Recent Features

Features | Politics | East Asia

Chen Guangcheng Goes to Washington

Jerome Cohen on the Chinese human rights activist’s efforts to navigate American politics.

Chen Guangcheng Goes to Washington
Credit: REUTERS/ Gary Cameron

Some of us are old enough to remember the wonderful 1939 Frank Capra film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, starring Jimmy Stewart. It was the improbable story of how a non-political do-gooder gets appointed to the United States Senate with the hope of reforming America’s political system. In a few days, Mr. Chen Guangcheng, the blind “barefoot lawyer” who arrived in New York from Beijing  26 months ago amid a blaze of publicity, will go to Washington in the hope of reforming not America’s political system but China’s.

Chen has hardly been idle during his New York sojourn.  In addition to studying both American law and the English language, he has kept up a feverish schedule of press interviews, TV and radio broadcasts, and academic and think tank lectures not only in North America but also in many other places ranging from Western Europe to Taiwan. Despite his blindness, with the help of his very able wife, Yuan Weijing, Chen spends gobs of time every day using all the electronic media to monitor developments in China and to keep in touch with colleagues and supporters in many countries. In addition to writing occasional op-eds about the need to oppose China’s myriad violations of civil and political rights, he has managed, through impressive discipline, to prepare for publication next spring a memoir of his life in China, including the dramatic Sino-American diplomatic crisis that culminated in his unexpected departure from his motherland.

Yet, during this period, despite Chen’s persistent efforts and those of so many others in and out of China, China’s new Communist leadership under Xi Jinping has proved more repressive than even its predecessors of the past 20 years. Moreover, the situation for Chen’s family has also deteriorated. Although Chen was allowed to leave China with Ms. Yuan and their two children, his nephew was subsequently sentenced to 39 months in prison after a farcical trial that resembled the one that had earlier sent Chen himself to prison for 51 months. Chen’s oldest brother, father of his nephew, was subjected to such vicious continuing harassment and threats of arrest if he remained in China that last year he too opted for exile and landed in New York, together with their 80-year-old mother, unavoidably leaving the rest of the family behind.

Chen goes to Washington as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, a relatively new research center based in Princeton, New Jersey, that describes itself as working “to enhance public understanding of the moral foundations of free and democratic societies.” He also serves as a visiting fellow at the Catholic University of America and as advisor to the non-partisan Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice. The move to Washington is undoubtedly based on the assumption that he can exert more influence over U.S. policy toward China if he is located in the nation’s capital rather than dashing in and out for select appearances, as he did once again on June 3 at the American Enterprise Institute, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the PRC’s infamous Tiananmen slaughter of hundreds of students and other protesters.

Negotiating Washington’s corridors of power will not be easy for Chen, who grew up in a poor village of 500 farmers and whose disability prevented him from starting school until he was 18. Yet he managed well during his two years in New York, apart from the widely-publicized and unfortunate spat that occurred when his comfortable fellowship at New York University came to its long-scheduled end. That incident cost him a significant amount of the overwhelming public support that had greeted him in New York. It has also made some other universities more skittish than ever about hosting other deserving dissidents at a time when American campuses and scholars are struggling to decide to what extent and under what conditions they should cooperate with Chinese educators and officials at home and in China.

Yet, contrary to the distorted image portrayed in “House of Cards,” Washington is made of sturdier stuff, and Chen will have the benefit of favorable ties that he has already forged in both the Republican and Democratic parties on Capitol Hill and in the NGO human rights community, where some earlier dynamic refugees from Chinese Communist oppression have attained substantial influence.

Chen has some distinct advantages in coping with Washington’s challenges. He is a brilliant speaker in Chinese, and this, together with his handsome appearance and keen wit, makes a formidable impact, even on audiences who do not understand Chinese. Chen’s June 3 AEI speech was the first he has given in English. It was clearly rendered, albeit lacking in the passion that marked his use of Chinese in answering questions. Unlike some previous dissidents, Chen recognizes the necessity of learning to communicate in English if he is to be effective in the long run. He can also be humorous and demonstrates a mastery of applicable Chinese proverbs that complicates the task of every interpreter.

Despite the fact that a more sympathetic assessment of the PRC’s harsh policies might benefit the plight of his family members remaining in China, as well as his chances of returning home someday, Chen’s public statements give Beijing no quarter and occasionally paint with a broader brush than an academic might. His long-awaited memoir, to be published next spring, may add to his political stature and influence.

The attention already being squandered on the 2016 American presidential election may present Chen with his most immediate problem. Even before he was permitted to leave China, Washington politicians were striving to exploit him in the then-ongoing 2012 presidential and congressional election campaigns. The initially-negotiated imaginative agreement for resolving the crisis created by Chen’s escape from illegal detention to the American embassy would have enabled Chen to study law in China but at great personal risk. After this deal collapsed, and before the much more favorable resolution was reached, Mitt Romney and his Republican supporters were already denouncing the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton’s State Department for their allegedly shameful failure to free him. While Chen was still confined to his Beijing hospital bed awaiting approval of his departure for America, human rights activist Reverend Bob Fu arranged for Republican Congressman Chris Smith to hold a spectacular telephone interview with Chen during a congressional hearing! And even months after his arrival, Republican operatives were attempting to turn Chen’s Washington visits into occasions for attacking the administration’s supposed bungling of his case.

Once Chen’s release was confirmed in principle after an incredibly tense two-day diplomatic donnybrook while the annual bilateral Strategic and Economic Dialogue was taking place, Obama administration officials, of course, sought to portray the outcome as a triumph of masterful negotiating skill over horrendous obstacles. They were mindful not only of the then-impending presidential election but also of Secretary Clinton’s reputation and prospects, and the American negotiators also had their own careers at stake.

The complete story of that entire wild week from April 27 to May 4, 2012, remains to be told. It could easily provide the screen play for a movie that would be a worthy sequel to the classic post-World War II Japanese film Rashomon, which depicted the complexities of a murder from four distinct viewpoints. Secretary Clinton’s just published memoir devotes an entire chapter to the incident, and it makes for an exciting read that tells a lot about both the high level negotiations about Chen and Sino-American relations generally. It is far from the full story, however, and is severely critical of Chen for changing his mind about the initial agreement and then for making statements that were “like throwing fuel on the political fire.”

Former Legal Adviser to the State Department Harold Koh’s thoughtful speech at NYU Law School last April helps to fill out the picture from the U.S. government’s vantage point. But Chen’s forthcoming book, slated to appear just as the 2016 campaign heats up, will surely throw more “fuel on the political fire” as he answers Clinton’s insinuations and the claim that her officials “had done what Chen said he wanted every step of the way.”

The problem was that, understandably, it was excruciatingly difficult for Chen to know what he wanted, for he was caught between a rock and a hard place. I witnessed his dilemma since, while the negotiations were going on, Legal Adviser Koh telephoned me in New York to ask for my help in giving Chen some independent advice about what to do – whether to stay in the security of the embassy or accept the risky offer to leave and study law in China. Chen had suggested my name when asked whether he had any American friends to rely on.

Actually I received two long calls from the embassy before Chen decided to leave it for his interim stay in the hospital. On April 30, after being briefed by Koh and other officials, I had a long talk with Chen, who wanted to study law in China but kept repeating that he was too afraid to make that choice. We decided that, because of his fear, which was certainly reasonably grounded, he should stay in the embassy. The next day, however, came a second call, making clear that Chen, after a full day of persuasion by American officials, seemed willing to contemplate taking a chance on leaving the embassy. Earlier in the call, my conversation with those officials, who were under enormous pressure from President Obama himself, left no doubt that they were pressing Chen to “make the right choice” and end the diplomatic impasse. Indeed, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell tried unsuccessfully to press me to give Chen the desired advice. Moreover, as Secretary Clinton’s book states, “with election-year politics swirling, Washington was in an uproar.”

Given Chen’s new attitude, I concluded our second long talk by saying that, if we could obtain a strong statement of continuing interest in Chen’s fate from President Obama, I could agree with Chen’s new willingness to leave the embassy. I heard nothing more from Beijing until two days later when, after Chen changed his mind about accepting the offer to study in China, I was asked to provide a solution to the ballooning crisis by inviting Chen to become a visiting fellow at New York University Law School’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute.

What we are still lacking and not likely to get is China’s very different perspective on the circumstances that enabled Chen to escape to the embassy in the first place and on the turbulent events that followed. Although, in his previous position in Beijing, China’s current ambassador to the United States, the capable Cui Tiankai, was the PRC’s principal negotiator at the working level in the Chen case, we cannot anticipate that he will offer any detailed public comments on how the process described in Secretary Clinton’s memoir looked from across the table.

It would be nice, however, if Ambassador Cui were at least to take advantage of Chen’s residence in Washington and privately exchange “revolutionary experiences” with him. But, since Cui and his government have refused to meet Chen and opposed his visit to Taiwan last year because of the political impact it would make there, we cannot expect Cui to welcome Chen to Washington.  We can only hope that Chen’s influence and efforts to expose China’s human rights violations may prove to be more significant from his Washington base than they have been until now.

Jerome A. Cohen is professor and co-director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University School of Law and adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.