Cautious Optimism for Chen Guangcheng US Visit

At The New York Times, Philip Pan describes Chen Guangcheng’s story so far:

My friendship with Mr. Chen began in the summer of 2005, when a New York University professor, Jerome A. Cohen, arranged for us to meet at a teahouse in Beijing. Mr. Chen had traveled to the capital from his home in rural Shandong Province, and he told me about his plans to sue local officials for breaking the law by using forced abortion and sterilization to enforce the one-child policy.

Within days, I found myself touring the Shandong countryside with him as he collected evidence of the abuses. Mothers who had been pregnant with a third child, some more than eight months along, described being forced to have abortions, and relatives of couples who had gone into hiding told of torture and captivity in makeshift jails. Holding a digital recorder, Mr. Chen listened quietly; the villagers treated him like a hero.

We discussed the risks that a newspaper article might bring him. More than once, Mr. Chen wondered aloud whether the authorities would arrest him after my story was published in The Washington Post, where I worked at the time, but he always concluded that they wouldn’t dare. He believed the central government would step in and punish local officials in Shandong who were violating national policy. He also thought his disability would give him some protection. “Are they going to arrest a blind man for filing a lawsuit?” he asked me. I told him it was his decision, but I also agreed, perhaps too readily, that his reasoning made sense. Of course, we were wrong.

A short video discussion at The Economist’s Analects blog provides another summary of events since Chen’s escape from house arrest nearly two weeks ago.

As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took off for Bangladesh on Saturday, the possibility that Chen Guangcheng might be allowed to travel to the US to study attracted variously cautious optimism from observers and supporters. From a State Department release:

The Chinese Government has indicated that it will accept Mr. Chen’s applications for appropriate travel documents. The United States Government expects that the Chinese Government will expeditiously process his applications for these documents and make accommodations for his current medical condition. The United States Government would then give visa requests for him and his immediate family priority attention.

This matter has been handled in the spirit of a cooperative U.S.-China partnership.

Jerome Cohen—the one man Chen told embassy officials he felt he could trust, and the subject of a profile in The Washington Post—told The Wall Street Journal that Chen would be offered a place at New York University:

Mr. Cohen said he woke up Friday morning to news that China said Mr. Chen could apply to study abroad. “My eyes lit up like a pinball machine when I saw that, because that’s the way out of the crisis,” he said. Mr. Cohen called it an “exciting, low-key, dignified” solution for both governments.

The final details with NYU have not yet been worked out, he said. It’s unclear whether Mr. Chen will choose NYU if he indeed decides to go to the U.S. to study.

Mr. Chen must get a passport and apply for a visa, but could arrive at NYU as early as a month from now, Mr. Cohen said.

In a lengthy conversation with Foreign Policy’s The Cable blog, however, Cohen took a more cautious tone, stressing that no formal agreement had been made, and that a number of questions, not least about funding, remained unanswered.

There may be private understandings between the two governments. But nothing is assured, Cohen said, and the Chinese government’s statement was not the same as a promise, much less a bilateral agreement to do anything for Chen.

“The first question I asked is: What form will this take? Will this be in writing by the Chinese? At what level? The form that was contemplated was not that conventional. It was going to more like the Shanghai communiqué. One side says something and the other side doesn’t say anything,” Cohen said.

But Cohen was nonetheless upbeat, explaining that in the U.S.-China relationship, having the two sides make two unilateral statements and then act as if there were an agreement is a time-honored tradition.

“This is the real world and the way nations deal with each other,” Cohen said.

State Department officials said they “believe that steps will play out expeditiously”. Certainly, Chen’s departure would have its advantages from Beijing’s perspective, as Andrew Jacobs argued at The New York Times:

Based on past experience, China is often all too pleased to see its most nettlesome dissidents go into exile, where they almost invariably lose their ability to grab headlines in the West and to command widespread sympathy both in China and abroad ….

Human rights advocates cite the case of Wei Jingsheng, long one of China’s most famous prisoners of conscience, who sank into relative obscurity after Beijing granted him medical parole in 1997 and sent him packing to the United States. Mr. Wei, who now struggles to support himself through private donations, government grants and speaking engagements, said he longed for those first few months after his arrival when he was honored by United States senators and traveled to Europe on all-expense-paid lecture tours.

“At first the news media pays a great deal of attention to you, but then it wanes,” he said from his home in Maryland. “You lose your leverage to expose the crimes of the Chinese government.”

Tiananmen protest leader Wang Dan, on the other hand, said he that he had come to find exile “not a liability but an asset”, citing earlier generations of Chinese reformers who had spent time abroad and expressing confidence that “all of us who are exiles will one day return to China.” From an op-ed in The New York Times:

When I was younger I was arrested twice, and sentenced twice, because I had been a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests and a participant in China’s civil rights movement. I was also released twice, giving me two opportunities — once in 1993 and again in 1998 — to make a choice between leaving China or remaining. The first time, I chose to stay. The second time, I chose to leave for America.

I have never regretted making that second choice, and now I want to reach out to Chen Guangcheng in Beijing and tell him he would not be making a mistake by doing the same. In addition to saving his family enormous pain, his leaving China now would not have to hamper his efforts to encourage change back home. In my own experience, being an exile has only helped ….

The Internet and globalization have changed the very concept of exile. They have eliminated the possibility of isolating Los Angeles (where I now live) from Beijing (my hometown), and Shandong Province (where Mr. Chen is from). My Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus followers number more than 80,000, and the vast majority of them are China activists in various parts of the world. Is this so different from staying? If I were in China under house arrest now, like Mr. Chen was for the past two years, I would have had to depend on the Internet for contact with the outside world anyway.

But loss of influence is not the only pitfall in leaving the country. Chen hopes to return to China in the near future, but there is so far no guarantee that this would be permitted: if allowing him to leave is appealing to Beijing, denying him re-entry might be equally so. The authorities’ actions on Friday did not inspire great faith in their good intentions: the BBC reported that journalists were threatened with revocation of visas for reporting from Chaoyang Hospital “without permission”. The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon tweeted that others covering talks between Chinese and visiting US officials had been asked to remove sunglasses, in case they were worn as a statement of support for Chen. Friday was Chen’s son’s birthday, and hospital staff presented him with a cake; but Liu Yanping, a volunteer at Ai Weiwei’s studio, was reportedly detained when she tried to deliver one. As reported yesterday, other supporters at the hospital were detained and in two cases severely beaten.

Paul Richter at The Los Angeles Times noted other issues with the proposed travel arrangements:

It is also not clear how soon officials will allow Chen to leave. Presumably, they could issue him a passport for swift departure. But they seem to want at least some delay, perhaps in hope that the worldwide attention to the case will diminish after the high-level talks end.

A delay of a few weeks on his departure won’t be important, but “if he’s still there after months, that’s going to generate reaction that won’t be good for either side,” said an American activist who has been close to the events.

It is also uncertain whether Chen will be obliged to return to his home town to apply for papers, as is legally required. Chen probably won’t want to do that, activists said, because of past mistreatment at the hands of local authorities.

In a New York Times op-ed, Wei Jingsheng expressed deep scepticism about the Chinese government’s sincerity:

From my experience, one can see how the Communist Party operates — why it makes promises and what its so-called guarantees mean. It is obvious that Mr. Chen did not understand the emptiness of these promises, which explains why he initially accepted the government’s pledges and left the United States Embassy in Beijing, where he had fled after escaping house arrest in his village, for treatment at a hospital. (On Friday, a tentative agreement that would allow Mr. Chen to travel to the United States as a student was announced ….)

Human rights have been overpowered by economic interests; the cause is as hopeless as that of the big United States trade deficit with China. With the loss of any viable economic means to pressure and penalize the Chinese Communist Party, one has to ask: On what basis does America believe that the Chinese government will keep the promises it makes?

Others also expressed reservations, but held out somewhat greater hope for the plan’s success. From The Guardian:

Phelim Kine, of Human Rights Watch, said: “The lesson of the last 48 hours is that expectations really need to be backed with concrete plans for delivery.

“It’s encouraging that the US government has confidence that the Chinese government will respond appropriately in this regard, but there’s no guarantee. What’s required now is public confirmation by the Chinese government and the issuance of a schedule for how and when this process will be completed.”

Chinese rights lawyer Tang Jitian earlier told AP: “This notice from the ministry of foreign affairs is positive news, but how it will play out we don’t know. For instance, getting the approval for the paperwork to go, there are many potential pitfalls. We can’t be 100% optimistic.”

At The Useless Tree, Sam Crane pondered the mystery of movements within the opaque Chinese government:

It is … too early to tell how all this is playing out at the highest levels of the CCP. No doubt this case is becoming enmeshed in the power transition now underway, to be completed this fall, involving the highest political positions in China: the Standing Committee of the Politburo. A farily common analytic line is that there may be splits among the current Standing Committee, with Wen Jiabao viewed as a more moderate voice, perhaps willing to compromise and work for some form of political reform versus the likes of Zhou Yongkang, who oversees the security apparatus and is assumed to take a harder line. It is really impossible to know for sure how this is playing out. It might be best, however, to understand it as a dynamic process. There is no one end point where one side or another can claim clear victory. Rather, every aspect of the on-going Chen case will be shaped by current differences at the top levels of power and struggles to shape the future composition of the Standing Committee. Thus, every facet of Chen’s situation – getting a visa; investigating Linyi officials; media representations; permission to return – will be subject to change depending upon how higher level power dynamics are playing out.

So, hold on to your hats. This saga is far from over….

In any case, the plan offers no escape for those outside, at most, Chen’s immediate family. From Gillian Wong at The Associated Press:

The turn of events for Chen, while welcomed by most activists and dissidents, is seen only as an individual victory and not likely to pave the way for improvements in China’s attitude toward its critics.

“I think that after the Chen Guangcheng incident, the situation for us will just become worse and worse, because in today’s society government power has no limits,” said Liu Yi, an artist and Chen supporter who was assaulted Thursday by men he thinks were plainclothes police while he attempted to visit Chen in hospital.

Liu Feiyue, a veteran activist who runs a rights monitoring network in the central province of Hubei, noted the importance of U.S. involvement in Chen’s case. “This is only an individual case. Because it turned into a China-U.S. incident, the U.S. put a lot of pressure on China, which is why the authorities made a concession to allow Chen Guangcheng to study overseas,” he said.

“Not all dissident cases can become international issues,” Liu Feiyue said.

Ministry of Tofu collected a broad range of netizen reactions to the study abroad plan:

切鲋撕鸡:Let him go. I had very limited knowledge and scanty information about him previously. On hearing his name, I googled him. I don’t whether his anecdotes are true or false. If they are true, the country has really failed him. If they are false, why not make them known to the public and bring him to justice? Why he is still allowed to apply to study abroad just as any other Chinese citizen can? My vision is blurred. I wonder if there will be breezes that can clear the fog.

暖小崖:I am just thinking, from now on, any Chinese that have a grievance can go to the U.S. embassy, and then Americans will become the yardstick for justice in China. [See Chinternet Meme: Office for Petitions and Appeals on CDT]

均金无忌:Going out is only possible with patriarchs’ consent. No matter how old you are, in the Heavenly Kingdom, you are always a minor.

水火同融:He is just a pawn used by imperial America against China, and some people really thought of him as a hero. How ridiculous that is!

Once the state media’s earlier silence was broken, many netizens commented on an official message they found, according to China Media Project’s David Bandurski, “embarrassing and exasperating”. The public handling of the episode as a whole, he wrote, may be “one of the most high-profile failures of Party propaganda we have on record“. This began after Chen’s departure from the embassy, which a Foreign Ministry spokesman greeted with an indignant call for an apology from the US. At Bloomberg, Adam Minter examined the demand’s reception online, quoting the reaction of one Sina Weibo user, GhostInTheHell, to the spokesman’s statement that “China is a country under rule of law”:

Excuse me, national rule of law spokesperson, it appears that Mr. Chen’s name is promptly deleted [from microblogs], according to which law? Again asking, your Honor, Mr. Chen’s house arrest of several years, was according to which law? Beating him was according to which law? Harassing his family was according to which law? Not permitting him to receive medical treatment was according to which law? Not allowing his daughter to attend school was according to which law?

Answers to those questions won’t come soon, but it’s also unlikely that the questions will stop. China’s netizens are becoming savvier about their news, their rulers and the role they play in making the latter responsive to the former. Wednesday night, NB Jianbo, an entrepreneur in Ningbo, a boomtown south of Shanghai, summarized that new role in an affecting tweet that referenced news about Chen Guangcheng and several additional “sensitive” news stories from recent weeks:

We are concerned about these events … not for the purpose of undermining social stability, but only because we are concerned about the state of the country, the state of society, and because we are patriotic.

Xinhua’s terse initial acknowledgement of the situation was followed by a stream of editorials denouncing Chen as a tool of the US; Gary Locke as a Starbucks-sipping, backpack-toting, troublemaking fake; and the Western media for blowing the whole affair out of proportion. “One leaf,” wrote Mo Nong at China Daily, for example, “is not the whole forest“: Chen and the US were each “taking the advantage of each other for their own purposes”.

Some in the United States have a Cold War mentality and turn a blind eye to what China has achieved in its protection of human rights and they spare no opportunity to speak ill of the human rights conditions in this country.

The Chinese saying that a leaf before the eye blocks the view of a mountain describes the situation that occurs when some Americans look at human rights issues in China….

Those who wag their tongues about China’s human rights conditions should also realize that in a country of nearly 1.4 billion people it is natural that there will be disagreements, disputes or even conflicts between local residents and local officials.

It is not fair for some Westerners to champion a particular case such as Chen’s in order to attack China’s overall human rights conditions, especially as the country is determinedly progressing its human rights.

A Global Times article based on an interview with professor Wu Danhong continued the theme:

Admittedly, today’s China has some loopholes in grass-roots governance.

There are systems and laws in China, but the sense of the law at the grass-roots level is still weak ….

Unfortunately, when trying to attract the international spotlight by being violently against the government, Chen became a political pawn and was used as a tool to work against China’s political system by some Western forces ….

Chen now has turned from an activist into a political tool of some forces with ulterior motives. China’s grass-roots conflicts, which come from imperfect governance, have been magnified immensely.

In the process, no matter it’s within his intention or not, Chen lost his own ability to speak.

Eric Fish translated highlights from other articles at his Sinostand blog, while David Bandurski analysed the “editorial onslaught”. From China Media Project:

The inclusion of the Beijing Times and The Beijing News in the editorial mix today was of particular note, as until recently both papers, which have substantial circulations, were central-level publications — the former a spin-off of the People’s Daily, the latter under Guangming Daily. The Beijing News in particular has long had a reputation as one of China’s top professional newspapers, and its brazen use in today’s salvo was upsetting to many Chinese journalists.

Veteran news editor and former CMP fellow Gong Xiaoyue (龚晓跃) wrote on Sina Weibo: “The Beijing News has been raped. And Beijing Daily has again screwed out a climax. No one seems to have any shame.”

Bandurski later reported a poignant and startling backlash from within one of these newspapers, in the form of a mournful weibo post which survived for almost 24 hours until being taken down on Saturday.

One of the most surprising and powerful pronunciations on “Editorial-gate” came at exactly 00:00 today, May 5, 2012, as one of the papers involved, The Beijing News — a paper with a proud though brief tradition of professional journalism — posted a touching plea for forgiveness on its Sina Weibo account, which has more than 1.38 million followers.

The post was accompanied by a black-and-white photo of a circus clown taking a sad and solitary drag on a cigarette, and read:

In the still of the deep night, removing that mask of insincerity, we say to our true selves, “I am sorry.” Goodnight.