At least for now, the U.S. and China seem to have averted a major diplomatic clash. But the deal they reached raises new questions about the future of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng.
On May 2, Chen departed the U.S. Embassy, at which he had taken refuge for six days, after Beijing apparently gave assurances for his safety. That should allow scheduled bilateral talks on trade, currency, and security—including the thorny issues of Syria and North Korea—to open, as planned, on May 3 in Beijing. Chen’s flight to the U.S. Embassy came after the former police chief of disgraced Chongqing party leader Bo Xilai apparently sought and was refused asylum in a U.S. consulate in southwestern China earlier this year. “I’m free. I’ve received clear assurances,” Chen said in a phone call to his lawyer shortly after leaving the U.S. Embassy.
U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton, who arrived in Beijing on May 2 for the so-called Strategic and Economic Dialogue with China that runs through Friday, spoke by phone with the 40-year-old Chen as he drove to a Beijing hospital with U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke. Chen, who was to receive treatment for injuries sustained during his earlier escape from house arrest, was reunited with his wife and two children. Clinton, who is accompanied by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner for the Beijing bilateral meetings, released a statement saying the Chinese government has agreed to allow the self-trained lawyer “to pursue higher education in a safe environment,” while the U.S. government will remain “engaged” with Chen.
“I am pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng’s stay and departure from the U.S. embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values,” Clinton said. “Mr. Chen has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment. Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task. The United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr. Chen and his family in the days, weeks, and years ahead.”
Beijing, for its part, demanded an apology for the U.S. handling of the incident on the same day Chen emerged from the embassy. Both Washington and Beijing had avoided commenting on Chen’s whereabouts previously. “China is very unhappy over this. The U.S. action is an interference in China’s internal affairs and China cannot accept it,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Liu Weimin on May 2, as reported by the official Xinhua News Agency. “China demands that the U.S. apologize and thoroughly investigate this incident, deal with the people who are responsible and ensure these types of incidents do not occur again.”
However, Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, dismissed the foreign ministry statement as “quite pro forma,” saying it suggests both sides want to “minimize the inflammatory rhetoric.”
“After a week of furious negotiations, the Chinese government and U.S. government have brokered this agreement that allows minimum mutual face loss,” says Kine. “That allows them to move the Chen Guangcheng issue to the margins for the moment at least, as a means to ensure that other key issues on the bilateral agenda, such as trade, currency, and regional security, aren’t disrupted through a protracted and bitter standoff.”
What comes next could be complicated. Chen had been under house arrest in his family farmhouse in eastern China’s Shandong province for almost two years, watched over by thuggish police and other local officials angered by his 2005 campaign against forced abortions carried out under China’s one-child policy. Now many unanswered questions remain, including where Chen will pursue his promised studies and how his safety will be guaranteed.
“The devil is in the details in this deal,” says Human Rights Watch’s Kine. “First, the safety and well-being of Mr. Chen and his family, friends, and supporters are very much at risk in China. It is absolutely essential that this quote-unquote location really is safe and secure,” he says, adding that Chen’s safety could be threatened by “rogue government officials and security in Shandong, who are extremely motivated to seek reprisals.”
And even if local officials are prevented from seeking retribution against Chen, there is danger he will run afoul of authorities in Beijing. “Chen Guangcheng is someone who is extremely strong in his beliefs in social justice, rule of law, and freedom of speech. And those three elements are very much under attack in China today,” says Kine. “So it remains to be seen what will transpire once he is released from the protection of U.S. diplomats. This is an individual who won’t back down. This is an individual who has endured almost unimaginable torments, and has emerged stronger and even more convinced in his beliefs. If the Chinese government is expecting him to go into some kind of quiet, scholarly, semi-retirement, they are sadly mistaken. That is simply not the kind of man Chen is.”
Meanwhile, late on May 2, the Associated Press reported comments from a close friend of Chen’s that suggested an alternate, more disturbing scenario. Zeng Jinyan said she had spoken with Chen from the Chaoyang Hospital where he was receiving treatment; Chen told her his wife had been threatened and that Chinese officials had said he could leave China alone, and that his family could not accompany him. “He said what he wanted was totally different but because no one can protect his wife and children,” he had to accept, Zeng said.