“I believe that no matter how difficult the environment nothing is impossible if you put your heart to it,” he told a cheering crowd at NYU shortly after arriving at Newark Liberty International Airport on Saturday evening.
“We should link our arms to continue in the fight for the goodness in the world and to fight against injustice. So, I think that all people should apply themselves to this end to work for the common good worldwide ….”
“For the past seven years, I have never had a day’s rest,” Chen said through a translator, “so I have come here for a bit of recuperation for body and in spirit.”
Chen thanked the U.S. and Chinese governments, along with the embassies of Switzerland, Canada and France.
Some Americans welcomed Chen not with cheers but, in comments collected by Offbeat China, with complaints about the burden he would place on the US taxpayer. The combined hourly rate of the several US officials who negotiated on his behalf is likely quite high; however, an NYU spokesman told The Wall Street Journal that, while he could not discuss financial specifics, “I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone that there have been significant offers of philanthropy regarding Mr. Chen.”
With Chen and his family finally out of China, diplomats involved in the wrangling that secured their departure anonymously disclosed their account of the negotiations to The Washington Post.
Over the course of the negotiations, the Chinese never put any proposals on the table. Their role was strictly reactive. At the end of each meeting, Cui would leave to report the latest terms to Chinese leaders. At times, he would enter the next meeting having come directly from the compound reserved for China’s highest leaders.
“We would put something forward, and were getting answers back almost immediately from the highest levels,” one senior administration official said. “I have never seen the Chinese government working this rapidly and efficiently.”
Meanwhile, the 12-hour time difference with Washington meant U.S. negotiators were getting little sleep, spending most of their night hours briefing the White House and State Department via secure lines at the embassy.
Negotiating with Chen could sometimes be as difficult as negotiating with Chinese officials. Conversations with him could be deeply moving. He often seemed fragile — a blind man with few possessions, sleeping in a small unadorned room in the barracks of the embassy. He talked of how much he missed his wife and worried about his children.
But he could pivot in an instant, displaying a steely shrewdness as he detailed the demands he wanted conveyed to Chinese officials.
One Chinese scholar quoted by the South China Morning Post drew a pessimistic conclusion from the episode:
“It was an acceptable solution among the three parties after a series of negotiations between Beijing and Washington,” Professor Shi Yinhong , a Sino-US expert at Renmin University, said. “But I hope Chen’s incident is just an isolated case, not a trend.”
Shi said mainland scholars were more suspicions about US intentions towards China’s internal issues after Chen’s case. It came at a sensitive time, just before the Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
“I think our leadership should remain vigilant … because the Chen case showed Washington doesn’t watch us only on our human rights,” Shi said.
“It also wants to affect our politics at the highest level.”
But Orville Schell was among many who pointed to encouraging signs for the crucial US-China relationship in the two sides’ conduct during the crisis.
… China showed either a new maturity, or a much keener sense of realism, perhaps recognizing that relations with the U.S. are even more important than the fate of a single dissident, even if his flight is represents a sublime loss of face ….
In many ways, it is tempting to look back at the whole transaction as something of a hopeful breakthrough. With a minimum of posturing, the two countries did manage to work their way through a very difficult problem. Evidently, each saw sufficient common interest to find a mutually agreeable solution. That is a very hopeful sign.
At The New Yorker, Evan Osnos saw similar grounds for cautious optimism in Chen’s expression of gratitude to the Chinese government for their “restraint and calm”:
… It might not have been the first thanks on everyone’s lips. One could read that as a diplomatic comment, intended to protect those still in China, including his mother (whose house is reportedly being fenced off by local officials) and the fellow dissidents who helped him escape.
But it must also be read as the measure of a man with extraordinary presence of mind. He is, after all, correct: by the standards of official Chinese conduct in many other areas, its handling of Chen’s departure was restrained and calm. And that is one of the modestly encouraging facts to emerge from the final accounting of this whole complicated business: presented with diplomatic dynamite, neither China nor the United States succumbed to its worst instincts. The American handling of the affair was far better than the fevered early indictments suggested, and the Chinese have, so far, kept their promises to Chen and the United States. Those involved should take confidence from that ….
… With Chen now in New York, the two sides can return to nurturing a relationship that has progressed to a point that a case like his can be handled without a serious rupture, said Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“It reinforces the trend since late 2010 for the two leaderships to find a way to steer around sensitive subjects and promote pragmatic near-term relations,” Paal said ….
“I think this brings the matter to a close,” Bonnie Glaser, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an e-mail. “Both countries will focus on their domestic politics, upcoming elections in the U.S. and the 18th Party Congress in China later this year.”
While many headlines hailed Chen’s arrival in the US as an ending, Perry Link told NPR that although “the tangle is finished for this particular case, it seems … the problems of human rights in China are not problems of one or two people whose cases have to ‘be resolved,’ quote-unquote. It’s a very deep, underlying long-term problem and we should view it that way.” As others stressed, the news brings no resolution for family and supporters still in China. From Jonathan Watts at The Guardian:
Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch said Chen’s departure was no cause for celebration as his family remained under pressure and there may be less incentive for the central government to investigate wrongdoing by the local authorities.
More importantly, Bequelin said, it raised questions about the wider environment for activists. “This is a reflection that there is no room for human rights defenders in China. We don’t know if this will turn into a temporary stay or exile, but in either case it begs the questions why someone like Chen Guangcheng cannot freely operate in China. What is it that stops the authorities from tolerating or even embracing someone like Chen?”
Bequelin’s comments were echoed, perhaps surprisingly, in a weibo post by Global Times editor-in-chief, Hu Xijin, quoted by Didi Kirsten Tatlow at The New York Times: “Today, Chen and his family have already taken an American airplane to New York. It makes people feel regret and sigh that in China today this is the only way to solve his problem.” His wistfulness was not matched by an editorial in his paper, which took a dismissive tone: “The drama around Chen is a colorful bubble. Nothing is left when it bursts.” Otherwise, as Tatlow wrote, Chinese media were largely silent about his departure, focusing instead on athletic victories, the South China Sea, or the ongoing clean-up of ‘foreign trash’. The famously independent Caixin did publish a report on Chen’s arrival in New York, but William Farris noted on Google+ that this was quickly taken down.
While some expressed reservations or disappointment, there was broad approval of Chen’s decision to leave from activists remaining in China. The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts spoke to several:
He Peirong – who played a key role in the escape by driving Chen from Shandong to Beijing – said she sympathised, even though the reverberations of Chen’s flight remain unclear. “I support any decision made by Chen, but it’s too early to say whether his departure is a good thing for China’s rights movement. Things are not settled. Problems are not solved. His family is still in China. The people who helped him escape are still in China.”
He – who was detained for several days after Chen’s escape and remains under surveillance – spoke of her admiration for Chen.
“He has done more than you could expect from any individual … Although he has experienced so much injustice and so many threats, he sticks to his beliefs. He is like a piece of jade: always smooth and warm.”
Chen’s lawyer Liu Weiguo said similarly that, despite his reservations about the outcome, “for the Chinese rights movement he has done more than enough. We can’t ask him to do any more. Now he needs time to rest.” Teng Biao, who precipitated the second phase of the diplomatic crisis by persuading Chen to abandon the idea of remaining in China, stood by his earlier position, telling Watts that “[Chen’s] safety and freedom are the priority. Whether this is a good thing for the rights movement is secondary now.”
“There won’t be any big changes for us now that Chen Guangcheng has left. There are still many reasons to keep up control and stability preservation,” Jiang Tianyong, a Beijing human rights lawyer, said in a telephone interview, referring to the Communist Party’s terms for controlling dissidents.
Jiang, a long-time campaigner for Chen’s freedom, said he remained under house arrest, despite police officers’ earlier promises that he would be released after Chen left.
“I still don’t know when they’re going to let up,” Jiang said of the police restrictions. “This is no way forward, but especially with the 18th party congress, the high pressure will probably only grow, not decrease.”
As in recent days, the most urgent concern was for Chen Kegui, Chen’s nephew, who faces charges of intentional homicide for attacking intruders into his father’s home when Chen Guangcheng’s escape was first discovered. From The Wall Street Journal:
Lawyers who have taken up the case of Mr. Chen’s nephew said it wasn’t clear how Mr. Chen’s departure would affect the outcome.
“It’s hard to say, since China never plays its cards in the proper order,” said Chen Wuquan, a Guangzhou-based lawyer whose license was revoked by local authorities just as he was preparing to travel to meet with Chen Kegui this month.
“I think [the authorities] will be more strict in dealing with Chen Kegui,” said Liang Xiaojun, another of the lawyers involved in the case. “They won’t care about the international viewpoint.”
While a number of lawyers volunteered to defend Chen Kegui, his family’s eventual choice of Ding Qikui and Si Weijiang was rejected by local officials, supposedly at his own request. Chen Guangcheng told The Financial Times that similar obstruction had occurred before his own sentencing to four years in prison in 2006. “That this naked, shameless abuse can still happen again six years later …,” he said, adding that he suspected Chen Kegui had been tortured to make him accept a public defender in place of the lawyers appointed by his family.
The longer term fear arising from Chen Guangcheng’s departure is that he may, like others before him, be barred from re-entering China and find himself trapped and increasingly powerless abroad. Wang Dan argued in a recent New York Times op-ed, and Human Rights Watch’s Phelim Kine told The Wall Street Journal on Saturday, that the Internet had changed the nature of political exile. Nevertheless, worry about Beijing’s enthusiasm for exporting dissent muted Orville Schell’s optimism about the state of Sino-US relations. From Asia Society:
The tactic of facilitating the most prominent critics of the Party to go into exile was something like the outsourcing of the manufacture process of a very polluting and unwelcomed home-based industry. There might initially be some complaints from dispossessed workers, but ultimately all, or almost all, would be forgotten, and the ongoing problem, if there were one, would be someone else’s.
With dissidents like Fang Lizhi and Wei Jingsheng, Chinese officials learned that interest in the opinions of such activists and concern for their well-being quickly waned once they were abroad. The political oblivion usually followed rather rapidly. Moreover, a short while after they left China, these once-celebrated voices seemed to lose the requisite standing necessary to being taken seriously as authorities on Chinese affairs. The process of being exiled effectively turned them into political eunuchs. Far better, so the Chinese leadership seemed to have concluded, to endure a few days of high intensity bad press as a prelude to watching a dissident parked harmlessly and unheard in Queens, sink out of site. The alternative was to have someone like Liu Xiaobo stuck in a Chinese jail writing damning essays and winning Nobel Prizes. (At least so far, neither Liu nor the Chinese Government has shown any inclination to engage in such export tactics in his case.)
In his interview with NPR, Perry Link also described the history of this trend:
The record of dissidents leaving China has changed pretty dramatically over the last 23 years, since the Tiananmen Massacre. At the time, the Chinese government was angry to see people like Liu Binyan and Fang Lizhi and Fu Xiao Jun and many, many others who fled and congregated at the time at Princeton University, where I was teaching. There were about 25 of them. And the government didn’t like that because they wanted them to come back. They were wanted and so on.
By now, I think we should say that the Chinese government’s policy has changed about 180 degrees. Now, they’re quite happy to see what they view as troublemakers like Chen Guangcheng be exiled, because the record over the last two decades of people who’ve come out has been that their influence inside China dramatically declines, and they feel frustrated. And their followers back in China feel frustrated.
So this exit of Chen Guangcheng is in one sense a win-win situation, because he and his family are now safe. And back in China they weren’t and didn’t feel that they were safe. And the Chinese government wins because it gets rid of a thorn in its side.
Link continued to describe Chen’s rural background, a potent contrast with that of the sterotypical Chinese urban-intellectual dissident. Sui-Lee Wee and Terril Yue Jones explore similar ground in a profile at Reuters:
“It was his own feelings of discrimination from the time he was a kid that really got him interested in law,” said Jerome Cohen, a China law expert and professor at New York University’s law school. Cohen has become a supporter and confidante of Chen.
“He felt the community leaders, instead of making blind people an object of sympathy, treated them as an unneeded burden on the community, people who didn’t pull their weight, people who claimed they shouldn’t pay tax like able-bodied farmers.
“That was what started him off ….”
“My first impression was I could be talking to a Chinese equivalent of Gandhi,” Cohen recalled. “This is a man with a quiet charisma, considerable intelligence, very articulate and a steely determination.”