The Chen Guangcheng affair in Beijing has been dominating the headlines recently, and as a side effect, the US – China Strategic and Economic Dialogue has been completely overshadowed. The Chen Guangcheng Episode Is A Victory For CCP ReformersAlso held in Beijing, the important summit between the super powers, a sort of unofficial G2, was obscured by news and speculation over the dissident’s saga. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner spoke with their Chinese counterparts about crucial issues like security, Iran and North Korea, trade between the two nations, and Chinese sovereign funds, but the attention of the world was focused on Chen’s escape from house arrest, flight to the US embassy, subsequent hospitalization, and speculation over a possible emigration to the United States.
Beyond the unprecedented public thirst for details, Chen’s odyssey carries a strong symbolic value. His background – a blind, self-taught lawyer, militant for peasants’ rights, fighter against the practice of forced abortions – makes him a poster boy for the human rights cause in China. By choosing to protect him and risking a diplomatic crisis, the US has taken a stance based on principles from which there is no backing down. In doing so, Washington has shown its best face, an uncompromising side that isn’t held back by calculation or pragmatism. When Chen was released from the American Embassy in Beijing where he initially sought refuge, many were calling it a victory for Western values, but the controversy started almost immediately, when the details of the release started to leak just a few hours later. Chen had apparently been handed over to the Chinese authorities, albeit formally in a state of freedom and destined for medical care. American NGOs criticized the release as a shameful compromise, while the political opposition was even harsher; Republican Representative Christopher Smith said “There is no safe place in China for dissidents. Going to the hospital is no different from going to the police station.”
Smith’s statement is clearly just part of the on-going US electoral campaign, but it does not diminish the courage shown by the US diplomats who granted shelter to the Chinese dissident in the US embassy in the middle of Beijing. Adding to the erratic evolution of the story is likely to be Chen’s state of mind and deep rooted fear of the Chinese establishment. Chen’s behaviour has been different from that of the many other Chinese dissidents who work silently for their cause while running the same personal risks.
The Obama administration has so far been able to save Chen’s fate without humiliating China, a move that is neither desirable nor practicable. Beijing needed to present a strong reaction to the embarrassment caused when Chen managed to escape right under the noses of heavy police surveillance. The very security forces that support the most conservative fraction of the CCP, a stronghold of the one-party system, have made a mistake. Operating against the opening of Chinese society, they protect opacity and vested interests, but in this affair they have shown their vulnerability.
It is very likely when the dust settles, the outcome will reinforce the reformist wing of the Party. The legacy of current leaders Wen and Hu is that reform is crucial for the future of China, but no matter how powerful, a single man at the helm cannot succeed alone. In this struggle, even a relatively minor event – like a dissident’s escape – could prove useful.