Protecting Chen Guangcheng, Pushing Reform in China

May 1, 2012

Human rights concerns and the status of blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng top the agenda as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner fly to Beijing for a yearly dialogue on strategic and economic issues. Chen is reportedly holed up in the U.S. embassy, where he took refuge after escaping from house arrest. The Chen case underscores a triple challenge for U.S. policy: standing firmly on the side of human rights; supporting the preferences of activists on the ground; and progressing on some issues while pressing disagreements on others. The Chen case, which comes on the heels of the fall of a high-level Communist Party official, represents something of a political crossroads for China. The sensitivity of the situation, as well as internal Chinese political dynamics, calls for a “low-key diplomatic approach rather than public tub thumping and ultimatum.” As one expert describes ties between the two economic and geopolitical superpowers, “It’s not an optional relationship.”

America stands firmly on the side of human rights – by respecting the wisdom of activists on the ground. Though some China-watchers say this may not be possible, the Wall Street Journal reports that political asylum in the U.S. may not be Chen’s preferred outcome: “Mr. Chen strongly wishes to stay in China, analysts and human-rights experts say. ‘He believes no power can stop China from moving in the direction rule of law. He’s optimistic and he wants to be involved in that process,’ said Hu Jia, an environmental and human-rights activist who said he met with Mr. Chen after he arrived in Beijing and helped decide, in discussions with other activists, that Mr. Chen should be moved to the U.S. mission. ‘He went to the embassy not to seek asylum, but for safety.’” As Nina Hachigian of the Center for American Progress and Jacob Stokes of the National Security Network write, Chinese activists’ views on how to move their own society forward must be taken into account during negotiations with the Chinese government: “Any proposed action [in support of human rights], though, must be considered in light of how, specifically, it will improve the lives of people in China—this has to be America’s focus. Ultimately, while the United States can help, insisting that their government respect human rights and dignity rests largely in the hands of the Chinese people.”

Coming to a credible agreement with the Chinese government will be tough and take patience—the U.S. should be prepared to negotiate as long as it takes. As Susan Shirk, former Asia official in the Clinton administration writes, “What the U.S. absolutely cannot do is force him out of the embassy into the arms of the security police. The negotiations on his future could take months. When activist Fang Lizhi sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in 1989, it took a year before the Chinese agreed to allow him and his wife to leave the country for medical care.” [WSJ, 5/1/12. Nina Hachigian and Jacob Stokes, 3/12. Susan Shirk, 4/30/12]

China is at a political crossroads with respect for the rule of law a key concern; U.S. should adopt a “low-key diplomatic approach rather than public tub thumping and ultimatum. As NPR notes, the Chen affair comes amid a leadership transition that has already been complicated by the fall of a top Communist Party official charged with corruption and disregard for the rule of law: “China’s top party officials were hoping for a smooth transition of leadership this year, with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao handing power to a younger generation. The whole process has been complicated by the scandal surrounding the fall of a powerful provincial official, Bo Xilai, and his wife, who is suspected in the death of a British businessman last November.”

Susan Shirk further explains, “The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] leaders, who are struggling to form a consensus on how to handle the Chen Guangcheng and Bo Xilai situations — whether to rebuild the CCP’s reputation by introducing political reforms and strengthening rule of law, or go the other direction to intensifying internal controls over society — may get agreement by combining loosening up domestically with taking tough stands internationally, particularly in relation to the United States.” Shirk calls for a low-key approach. “The U.S. doesn’t want to get in the way of a domestic dynamic that might lead to political improvements for the Chinese people. That’s why a low-key diplomatic approach rather than public tub thumping and ultimatum is called for. The U.S. should not get in the middle of this situation in a way that will provide China with the excuse to blame ‘hostile foreign forces.’”

A low-key approach should not obscure the central facts of this situation, though. The New York Times editorial board summarizes, “Corrupt officials and disregard for the rule of law are the true threat to China, not Mr. Chen and others who courageously defend human rights. Mr. Wen says he wants political reforms. This is his moment to show that China is ready to embark on a more honorable and sustainable path.” [NPR, 4/30/12. Susan Shirk, 4/30/12. NY Times, 4/30/12]

The U.S.-China relationship cuts across many issues, all of which are “very consequential.” The Chen case comes just before the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a bilateral forum where the two countries plan to discuss a host of issues. As the New York Times explains, “Scores of senior officials are scheduled to meet in Beijing this week to discuss an important agenda, including China’s artificially undervalued currency, disputes over intellectual property and how much Beijing will do to help rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions and halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.”

While human rights issues are a priority in U.S.-China relations, especially now, disagreements should not preclude attempts to find common ground on other issues. As NPR reports, “Kenneth Lieberthal [of the Brookings Institution] is sympathetic to Clinton’s approach to human rights issues in the past, trying to keep them separate from other tough issues, and he says this week’s agenda is already ‘very full and serious.’ ‘This meeting may test that proposition — whether you can keep each of these in their own category so that problems in any one area don’t undermine your ability to deal with the others, because all are very consequential,’ he says.” So far during the crisis, experts say U.S. diplomats have managed the crisis well. As Orville Schell, head of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society told NPR, “he thinks U.S. officials are handling the matter about as well as they can. ‘They’re shutting up, they’re not saying anything, not making inflammatory public statements,’ Schell says. ‘What are at stake here are U.S.-China ties. It’s not an optional relationship.’” [NYT, 4/30/12. Kenneth Lieberthal via NPR, 4/30/12. Orville Schell via NPR, 4/30/12]

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