Activist’s Escape Tests Chinese & US Governments

Chen Guangcheng’s escape from house arrest to the US embassy (as seems increasingly likely) has presented both Washington and Beijing with difficulties ahead of high-level talks this week. The episode threatens to further disrupt the Chinese government’s smooth path towards its leadership transition later this year, while forcing the Obama administration to strike a more than usually precarious balance between human rights and Sino-American harmony.

Hoping to steer the US towards a leadership transition of its own, presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney applied some pressure on the issue on Sunday. From The Caucus blog at The New York Times:

“Any serious U.S. policy toward China must confront the facts of the Chinese government’s denial of political liberties, its one-child policy and other violation of human rights,” he said in a statement on Sunday, his first remarks on the issue since Mr. Chen’s escape became known on Friday. Mr. Chen became famous because of his strong opposition to forced abortions and sterilizations conducted as part of China’s policy of limiting families to one child.

“Our country must play a strong role in urging reform in China and supporting those fighting for the freedoms we enjoy,” Mr. Romney added ….

Mr. Romney’s remarks made it clear that the administration would not be able to remain silent on the matter much longer. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner are scheduled to lead a large delegation to Beijing this week for two days of talks on economic and security issues — matters that will surely be overshadowed by Mr. Chen’s case.

The administration has stressed the need to find an appropriate balance between backing Chen and maintaining good relations with China. To clear the way, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell travelled to Beijing ahead of schedule. From NPR’s Louisa Lim:

Chen’s whereabouts have yet to be officially confirmed, though several activists and groups with whom he had been in contact say he is under U.S. protection. There was no comment from Assistant Secretary of State [Kurt] Campbell as he flew into Beijing, days earlier than planned. So far, the U.S. silence is a good sign, according to Susan Shirk, a professor of Chinese politics at UC San Diego, who was a State Department official responsible for China during Bill Clinton’s presidency,

“Rather than making big public statements and dramatic gestures, the United States is using quiet diplomacy,” Shirk says, “which is exactly what I would think is needed at the current time ….”

But time for quiet diplomacy is limited. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner arrives in Beijing, with a high-profile delegation of about 200 officials for previously scheduled annual talks, known as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Back in November, Clinton urged China to do the right thing in Chen’s case. Now, Shirk says, she’ll have to live up to her words.

In an op-ed at CNN, former CIA analyst Christopher Johnson set out his widely quoted view that this may be “the most tense and delicate moment in [the two countries’] bilateral relationship since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown”:

On many levels, the parallels to 1989 are striking. After the June 4 bloody crackdown on student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, another famous Chinese dissident, Fang Lizhi, became a living symbol of the bilateral conflict over human rights by spending a year in the U.S. Embassy before finally being allowed to leave the country.

Today’s top Chinese leadership, though not yet as deeply divided as its 1989 antecedent, is struggling to maintain unity following the purge of one of its rising Politburo stars for his connections to the security chief’s botched flight and lurid allegations of the murder of a British national. Recent apparent leaks and counter-leaks to the Western media detailing leadership infighting underscore the charged political atmosphere in Beijing as party heavyweights jockey for advantage in the wake of the scandal ….

Add to this cauldron the scheduled arrival in Beijing next week of a Cabinet-level U.S. delegation — led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner — for the fourth round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). If Chen is holed up in the U.S. Embassy, it is hard to fathom how the two sides will stay focused on the many pressing geostrategic and economic challenges in the relationship — especially as they will undoubtedly face a frenzy among accompanying media over Chen’s status.

But the talks’ high stakes provide a strong incentive to quarantine the issue, according to an anonymous Chinese official quoted by The Independent:

A Chinese ministry source suggested that his government is anxious not to jeopardise the talks. “It’s too important to China,” he said. “They will separate out Chen from the dialogue. China really needs this dialogue… because the relationship with the United States is extremely important to China and this is a sign of commitment and even of friendship.”

He added: “I predict that if Chen is in the embassy then he won’t get out for years. But it will merely be an irritant to the Chinese. They won’t do anything in retaliation. They will compartmentalise it from the far more important issues there are between China and the US.”

Besides complicating China’s foreign relations, the episode could sway an ongoing struggle to determine the Party and country’s future direction. Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas Bequelin described the contenders in a February op-ed for The New York Times, focusing on the then-current battleground of the Criminal Procedure Law revision.

The more progressive-minded factions of the Communist Party and the government consider legal reforms to be integral to China’s modernization. They see enlightened self-interest in giving a greater role to the rule of law, and reforming the criminal code to offer due-process rights that resemble international norms is a key part of this effort.

The other camp is made up of the powerful security apparatus and the more conservative and hard-line elements in the party and the government. This faction has become increasingly powerful since it was assigned the leading role for the security of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

At The New Yorker on Saturday, Evan Osnos described Chen’s escape as perhaps Wen Jiabao’s final chance to leave a concrete legacy as leader of the former group:

For years, Chen’s case has been a confusing blot on China’s aspirations for reform; every step that the country took toward greater rule of law or judicial accountability was cheapened by the fact that, ever since Chen’s legal challenges embarrassed his local government in 2005, central authorities in Beijing have been unwilling or unable to prevent local apparatchiks from systematically abusing him. His case became a kind of authoritarian tragicomedy in 2006, when Chen, who had once been celebrated in the local press for his determination to become a lawyer, was sentenced to four years and three months in jail for “destroying property” and “assembling a crowd for the purpose of disrupting traffic”—even though, at the time, he had been under house arrest. Even the nationalist corners of the Chinese press could no longer understand it. Last October, the Global Times wrote that “the case of Chen Guangcheng has become exaggerated into a mirror of China’s human rights, and it seems that we need more experienced authorities to lance this boil ….”

In his escape and his appeal, Chen has posed several questions. He has asked Premier Wen Jiabao to protect his family and address the corruption at the root of his case. In doing so, Chen has given Wen perhaps his final chance, in the final months of a frustrated ten-year term, to fulfill his oft-stated intentions to reform the system. As of now, Wen will be remembered as a well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective advocate for political reform. If he can protect Chen’s family, and bring his abusers to justice, Wen will have an accomplishment worth noting. It will do nothing to undermine Chinese stability and economic growth—so often the excuses to defer systemic reform—to address the crimes visited upon Chen Guangcheng.

Keith Richburg made a similar argument at The Washington Post:

By appealing personally to Wen, Chen was deftly avoiding the accusation, often used against dissidents in China, that he was “subverting state authority.” To the contrary, Chen was pointing the finger at abusive, corrupt local officials and calling on the premier — a self-styled reformist — to assert the power of the state over the local government and over a security apparatus that many critics feel has run amok ….

“The rule of law is the foundation of the governance of the CPC and critical for realizing long-term stability,” the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s main mouthpiece, wrote in an editorial that was widely reprinted in all the state media. “Anyone who breaks the law shall be convicted and punished.”

Now Chen, through his escape and in the videotape, is directly using that same argument in appealing for Wen and the central government to take action against those who abused him and his family members and illegally held him captive for 19 months.

As for the “hard-liners”, Reuters’ Chris Buckley wrote that the affair marked a second strike against security chief Zhou Yongkang following the downfall of his ally Bo Xilai.

The recent crises have intensified long-standing criticisms in China that Zhou’s fiefdom has grown too powerful, unaccountable and yet incapable of meeting the party’s expectations of defending social stability.

“You can’t separate the case of Chen Guangcheng from Zhou Yongkang and his making stability preservation a national policy that has overridden all boundaries and rules,” said Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer in Beijing who takes on contentious cases about human rights and freedom of speech.

“This all comes down to Zhou Yongkang’s policies for social control and domestic security, and this shows that in the end they can’t work,” added Pu, who said he hoped China’s next leaders would rein in what they call the “stability preservation” apparatus after taking power from later this year.

As Jane Perlez noted at The New York Times, however, the situation’s ultimate effects remain unpredictable:

But at the same time the issue could redound to the benefit of hard-liners, who may see [Chen’s] escape as part of a conspiracy to embarrass China that involves the United States, several diplomats here said ….

Perhaps the biggest threat to the leadership is the way Mr. Chen is likely to become a pawn between the major ideological camps that have emerged in the wake of Mr. Bo’s dismissal.

The chief of China’s security apparatus, Zhou Yongkang, would be able to use Mr. Chen as a “told you so” example to push back against the more pro-Western camp, led by President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, two foreign diplomats here said. Mr. Zhou could argue that Mr. Chen plotted to embarrass the leadership at a vulnerable moment after Mr. Bo’s downfall, and did so with the cooperation of the Americans, said the diplomats, who requested anonymity in keeping with diplomatic protocol. This argument would put Mr. Wen and Mr. Hu on the defensive, the diplomats said.

Another dimension in Chen’s case is the nature of the central government’s involvement in his treatment by the local authorities in Linyi: as instigator, partner, or helpless or oblivious bystander. Wang Xiangwei, writing at the South China Morning Post, gave Beijing the benefit of the doubt:

While the Chinese leaders reflect on the latest developments, the first question they should ask themselves is how this could have happened in the first place. Chen, a self-taught lawyer, merely did the right thing by exposing how officials in Linyi , a city in Shandong, broke Chinese laws by forcing thousands of women, many of them in late stages of pregnancy, to have abortions.

In any other country, Chen would have been hailed as a hero, but in Shandong he was treated as a criminal, jailed and constantly harassed after his release.

Even sadder, the central government seems powerless to stop local officials from committing such sins. This may be very hard for outsiders to believe, but the leaders in Beijing have far less influence than expected in important regional decisions, whether they be economic or social. The latest example is Bo’s case. Bo ruled Chongqing as an overlord for five years, and leaders in Beijing seemed clueless until recently about how to deal with him.

Nicholas Bequelin, on the other hand, argued that Chen’s extra-legal detention was of Beijing’s own making. From Jonathan Watts’ exploration of the escape’s possible domino effects at The Guardian:

“The state security bureau told the Linyi authorities that they had to neutralise Chen but not re-arrest him lest it create more international outcry,” said Bequelin, who said the authorities were increasingly using illegal measures because the old methods of information management have been incapacitated by the spread of microblogs.

“The security apparatus is not able to control and prevent critics and dissidents the way it was before. To make up for this erosion of social control, increasingly unlawful methods are being deployed against activists, including disappearance and torture, so as to silence them and intimidate others,” he said.

And at Chinese Law Prof Blog, Donald C. Clarke agrees that the central government must have been complicit:

He begins the message by saying 敬爱的温总理” (jing’ai de Wen Zongli): roughly, “respected and beloved” or “dearly respected.” Although it’s not nearly so over the top in Chinese as it sounds in English, it nevertheless demonstrates (sincerely or not) a respectful attitude ….

The Linyi authorities don’t have the authority or ability to censor internet search results for Chen Guangcheng, and it wasn’t the Linyi authorities can’t make police in Nanjing detain one of those who helped Chen escape. Chen’s politeness to Wen in his video message is a face-saving fiction.

That fiction might provide sufficient cover, in any case, for the government to break from its past role. Yiyi Lu wrote at China Real Time Report that Beijing’s conduct in Chen’s case has been “baffling”, but that its way forward is clear:

The first, and probably least likely, possibility is that higher authorities know about Chen Guangcheng but are not aware that he has been subjected to illegal treatment ….

The second possibility is that higher authorities know the illegal treatment of Chen is a mistake but are loathe to admit it and make amends out of a fear of “losing face” or being seen as weak ….

The third possibility is that nobody, not even higher up in the hierarchy, was willing to intervene once the decision on how to deal with Chen had been made by a certain agency or official, even if it was an unwise decision that severely damaged the government’s image and put it in an awkward predicament ….

International media have suggested that this new development puts China’s leadership in a quandary. In fact, it should not be a difficult problem for Beijing to solve …. Beijing recently sacked a powerful and well-connected member of the Politburo and put him under investigation. If it can take that action without splitting the Party, bringing down the government or losing so much face that it can no longer go about its business as usual, then surely conducting an investigation into Chen Guangcheng’s allegations and rectifying any illegal practices cannot be that difficult a move to make.