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David Wertime

The Limits to Chen Guangcheng's Diplomatic Impact

Chen Guangcheng

Chen Guangcheng, a blind villager who learned law while moonlighting as a masseur, had already changed China. Now, some believe he may change the world by precipitating a diplomatic crisis.

On April 28th, word got out that Mr. Chen, a self-taught lawyer who fought for the rights of the disabled and dispossessed, only to be jailed on trumped-up charges and later subjected to house arrest, had escaped. He left behind a video in which he openly challenged China’s Prime Minister, the relatively liberal Wen Jiabao, to punish those who imprisoned and, occasionally, beat Mr. Chen and his loved ones. Although Chen’s current whereabouts are unknown, many now believe he has fled to the United States embassy in Beijing.

Analyst Christopher K. Johnson, speaking with the New York times, characterized Cheng Guangcheng’s escape as the biggest Sino-U.S. diplomatic “test” since the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, or at least since the 2001 spy plane crisis. In the latter incident, a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter and went down over Hainan Island, prompting over a week of high-level negotiations for the Americans’ return, not to mention endless arguments about which of the two planes was to blame for the collision.

The U.S. has dealt with worse, and recently

To hype the impact of Chen’s break is to forget the recent past. In contrast to the Western media (or any media for that matter), the Chinese people have long memories. The United States’ apparently accidental 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which killed three Chinese reporters, may have faded from Americans’ collective consciousness, but it has cast a long shadow over U.S.-Sino relations. At the time, the two nations’ relationship was rivalrous and fraught, but savored of rapprochement. The U.S. had been but a bit player in China’s so-called “Century of Humiliation,” taking a decided back seat to the U.K. and Japan as the historically worst offenders of China’s sovereignty.  

1999 was a bad year to be an American in China

To the Chinese, the Americans’ bombing of their embassy unmasked the United States as an enemy in acquaintance’s clothing, with true intentions the same as its Western neighbors: To wit, the humiliation and subjugation of the Middle Kingdom, or at least “containment” of its efforts to realize its inherent greatness once again. Almost no Chinese believed the bombing to be a mere mistake; and even if it was, they asked, why were the coordinates of a piece of China’s sovereign territory stored merely a finger’s slip away from the intended target? 

At any rate, in Chinese culture, actions matter more than intentions, and the actions were horrific. So was the fallout for Americans in the country; even some Peace Corps volunteer teachers feared for their safety as students gathered around their apartments to protest. The United States has found itself laboring against the ill-will created by that incident ever since. 

Perception is reality

Norway was willing to risk its relationship with China over this man. Author: Voice of America

Taking Chinese perception of an intentional American attack on Chinese soil at face value, it is hard to see how harboring one escaped dissident can possibly measure up. To be sure, Norway has suffered serious damage to its bilateral relations with China since the Nobel committee awarded Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo the Nobel peace prize in 2010. But Norway is a relatively small fish as foreign trade goes, and the Chinese saw the award as a spontaneous provocation ordered by Norway’s authorities. This too may not cohere with reality, but perceptions are far more predictive of diplomatic repercussion than are facts. 

In the realm of perception, China’s chief bugbear is not the U.S.’s criticism of its human rights record, per se. Rather it is perceived U.S. efforts to contain China, with human rights concerns a convenient pretext for self-interested meddling. Here, however, there is no apparent meddling. If Chen and friends did not orchestrate this daring escape purely by their own wits, there is no public evidence to the contrary. 

It follows that if the slightest whiff of U.S. organizational help, or even close encouragement, were to emerge, the Chinese government would be quick to decry U.S. “interference” in what it considers its own “internal affairs.” Unless and until that happens, however, the U.S. diplomatic corps can credibly claim to have been basically minding its own business before yet another terrified Chinese national came banging at its door. 

Time to start fitting Chen for a Yankees uniform

The smart money says the United States opens this door and lets Chen through. The Wang Lijun incident, in which the U.S. consulate in Chengdu rebuffed the efforts of Chongqing’s erstwhile police chief to defect and instead turned him over to Beijing, is an imperfect cognate. To do otherwise would have sparked diplomatic crisis, but that’s because Wang, an “unsavory” character, almost certainly did not fit the legal definition of a refugee. Meanwhile, pressure to keep Wang was limited. Wang’s expertise in persecuting his and his boss’s political opponents left American human rights activists cold, and his return elicited a relatively tepid response from President Obama’s political opponents. 

Chen’s case is far more sympathetic. If the Obama administration returns him to Chinese hands, it will be pilloried by idealists and opportunists alike. If it keeps him safe, it will have to walk a diplomatic tightrope with China. But the evidence suggests it can keep its balance.

Glimmers of diplomatic hope

The U.S. has reason to believe it can keep Chen. Netizen reaction, the best available proxy for Chinese public opinion, provides some hope. China’s usually-liberal netizens have in the past proved more nationalistic than China’s own government when the right nerve is struck. But online response to Chen’s flight, at least where censors have yet to reach, has so far focused on his heroism, not on the U.S.’s involvement.

Because public opinion has not inflamed against the “American Imperialists,” Chinese diplomats have the freedom to negotiate without the specter of citizen nationalism hovering behind them. Short of hard evidence of American meddling, there is no clear reason for China’s leadership to turn a huge loss of face into a potentially destabilizing international crisis to boot.

Chen has endured years of mistreatment from local officials

Instead, Beijing can take rearguard action to guard U.S.-Sino relations, not to mention its own reputation, by claiming that Chen’s arrest and persecution were at the hands of thuggish local officials. After all, officials in Linyi, Shandong province, were responsible for imprisoning Chen beginning in 2005 (and then releasing him into house arrest, imprisoning him again, then releasing him into house arrest again.) Although scholar Donald Clarke notes it is highly likely Beijing signed off on Chen’s high-profile mistreatment, it may be enough for Beijing to convince most people within China that Chen’s flight was an unfortunate result of purely local circumstances.

The unpalatable alternatives

Of course, Chen’s whereabouts remain murky. If in fact he is in another country’s care, Chen’s supporters can only hope it is a country like the U.S., that is, one with clout sufficient to withstand the diplomatic pressure that will surely follow. If it is a small European nation–some early rumors pointed to Ireland–it may face a Sophie’s choice between losing a crucial trading partner during a global recession, and becoming a pariah in the West for returning a good and gentle man to likely torture.  

It’s also possible that Chen is not yet in United States custody, but merely close, perhaps in a safe house whose whereabouts are known only to some Americans and to Chen’s confidants. If he is not on the sovereign soil that an embassy or consulate provides, the U.S. would need to provide at least some degree of assistance for Chen to take that final step to safety. Such assistance, no matter how minor, may be enough to trip the hair trigger of “foreign interference,” transforming this incident into a true crisis. 

But these are speculations for another day. For now, it is enough to note that the skies over China and the United States’ complex but crucial relationship are not falling–at least not yet. 

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
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  • Archie

    I’ve read rumours that Chen is in fact in the American Embassy, and wants to return to China to fight the good fight. I think this is going to be another interesting week in Chinese politics. Fascinating time to be here.

    • David Wertime

      You’re right, at least re: Chen’s intent; he seems to want to stay. I think that will be very tricky, but may actually be best for all concerned. The US doesn’t become a haven for every dissident who wants to flee China; meanwhile Beijing can show they are serious re: rule of law and can spin it internally as just having to crack down on the crazy local officials in Linyi.

  • Archie

    I’ve read rumours that Chen is in fact in the American Embassy, and wants to return to China to fight the good fight. I think this is going to be another interesting week in Chinese politics. Fascinating time to be here.

    • David Wertime

      You’re right, at least re: Chen’s intent; he seems to want to stay. I think that will be very tricky, but may actually be best for all concerned. The US doesn’t become a haven for every dissident who wants to flee China; meanwhile Beijing can show they are serious re: rule of law and can spin it internally as just having to crack down on the crazy local officials in Linyi.

  • FranklinBluth

    Whatever both sides say publicly, it’s a bigger deal than any official is letting on.

    • David Wertime

      Agreed, it’s definitely a big deal…but is it the biggest test since Tiananmen? Sure, there’s a parallel w/ the Fang Lizhi incident which occurred at that time, but I really think the Belgrade incident (and also the spy plane incident) were more of a test. Thanks for reading!

      • FranklinBluth

        It’s interesting how it’s playing out!  I think this high-profile situation has more parallels to the Fang Lizhi situation.  The Belgrade and spy plane incidents could and were spun in a certain way.  This is the nature of military operations.  The US could claim Belgrade = “accident” and spy plane = “overly aggressive pilots”, and China found support in nationalism.  Perhaps it’s because they were bigger tests that the end results were ambiguous apologies from the US.  

        I see the Chen situation as being unique because of its politically inopportune timing: each side has something to prove at home right now.  With the election coming up and a very critical GOP, Obama needs to show support for human rights (more so than in the past) while balancing the US-Sino economic and diplomatic relationships.  This time around, China has a much stronger hand to deal with the US.  On the Chinese side, the party, still reeling from the Bo Xilai incident, probably risks inflaming public opinion that is sympathetic to Chen and is more vocal because of strong sentiment and technology.

  • QuietestAC

    Whatever both sides say publicly, it’s a bigger deal than any official is letting on.

    • David Wertime

      Agreed, it’s definitely a big deal…but is it the biggest test since Tiananmen? Sure, there’s a parallel w/ the Fang Lizhi incident which occurred at that time, but I really think the Belgrade incident (and also the spy plane incident) were more of a test. Thanks for reading!

      • QuietestAC

        It’s interesting how it’s playing out!  I think this high-profile situation has more parallels to the Fang Lizhi situation.  The Belgrade and spy plane incidents could and were spun in a certain way.  This is the nature of military operations.  The US could claim Belgrade = “accident” and spy plane = “overly aggressive pilots”, and China found support in nationalism.  Perhaps it’s because they were bigger tests that the end results were ambiguous apologies from the US.  

        I see the Chen situation as being unique because of its politically inopportune timing: each side has something to prove at home right now.  With the election coming up and a very critical GOP, Obama needs to show support for human rights (more so than in the past) while balancing the US-Sino economic and diplomatic relationships.  This time around, China has a much stronger hand to deal with the US.  On the Chinese side, the party, still reeling from the Bo Xilai incident, probably risks inflaming public opinion that is sympathetic to Chen and is more vocal because of strong sentiment and technology.