The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders have little leverage to shape China’s future. This isn’t to say that China is permanently stuck in an authoritarian quagmire and outsiders can only watch. On the contrary, people like Chen Guangcheng show how China is changing: from the grassroots up, by ordinary citizens willing to assert their rights and push change.
Chen lived in the countryside, never took a “capacity-building” seminar of the sort Western NGOs like to offer, and instead taught himself law. He used it most famously to challenge forced abortions and sterilizations, which although not as prevalent as before, are still part of the country’s draconian one-child policy. The fact that he was blind only added to his appeal among ordinary Chinese.
But like people on the cutting edge of social change anywhere, he suffered. He was jailed, released, and had been spending years under house arrest—a new way for authorities to control activists without going to the courts. Eventually, he got fed up and about two weeks ago made a desperate flight to Beijing. It’s understandable that he would want to flee. That he had no particular game plan also seems clear—he just wanted to get out. And when he arrived in Beijing last week, he definitely needed help. His foot was injured and he was separated from his wife and children, whom he had left behind in his native Shandong province.
His decision to go to the US Embassy was interesting and one hopes that in time we will learn more about his motives. Though their cases were radically different, perhaps it reflected something of the same reasoning that of the Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, who in February fled to the US Consulate in Chengdu when he felt he was in trouble—that if one has problems with the Chinese state, the United States can help.
For Americans who fret about their country’s decline, that’s a comforting thought. But it also hugely overestimates US influence in China. It’s not that the United States and other countries can’t do anything. Outsiders can insist that until China meets its own laws on due process, torture, and extra-judicial detentions it won’t be a fully fledged partner of any Western democracy. But the idea that the United States can make a powerful country like China change its political and legal system simply by insisting on it—by “doing something”—is delusional.
This view is often found among Americans running for President. Democrats and Republicans alike have a habit of calling on Washington to demand progress on human rights in China. This started in 1989, in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre, when the United States put enormous pressure on Beijing to allow freedom of speech and other basic liberties. Usually, all it got was the release of a couple of dissidents. Today, with China many times stronger, the US has even less influence.
Still, US diplomats gamely took Chen in last week and began negotiating. But they had an incredibly weak hand. Chen had two losing propositions: stay in the embassy and hope that one day he could be allowed to leave for the airport and take a flight to the United States. This would have been the Fang Lizhi option, as Perry Link so well describes on this site. After Tiananmen, the famous physicist and his wife took refuge in the US embassy and spent a year there before being allowed out.
Unlike them, however, Chen did not have his wife with him so the prospect was that if he could leave at all, it would be without her (and his two children) and to hope they’d not be mistreated in his absence and be allowed out later. Chinese officials had brought them to Beijing during the negotiations but reportedly said that if he didn’t leave, they’d be sent back home.
Another reason exile has become unappealing in the years since Fang Lizhi’s departure is that most dissidents who flee abroad sink into irrelevancy. Cut off from China, many of them unable to speak English or another foreign language, they become the equivalent of Cold War émigrés, unable to do much more than write blogposts (all blocked in China) and testify before Congress.
So Chen took the other option and left the embassy Wednesday. US diplomats told him they had assurances that he would be reunited with his family and be allowed to study law at a university in the neighboring city of Tianjin. They also promised to keep international attention focused on him. But leaving the embassy meant going back into the breach and he quickly began to have doubts. His wife told him that she had been bound to a chair and threatened with violence before coming to Beijing. His lawyer, Teng Biao, bombarded him with phone calls urging him to return to the embassy and seek exile, according to transcriptions of those talks.
Soon, Chen was making various assertions, including that US officials told him that if he didn’t leave the embassy, his wife would be beaten. This seems implausible given that State Department lawyers were advised by one of the sharpest China human rights lawyers, Jerome Cohen. Cohen is a strong supporter of Chinese dissidents and acted as Chen’s advocate in the negotiations. He has backed US Ambassador Gary Locke’s statement Thursday that Chen was not coerced or tricked into leaving.
Shortly after leaving the embassy, Chen also said that China had already reneged on its promises—perhaps because of the secret police he encountered in the hospital. More likely is that he realized he was back in the same China he left; that he might be able to go to Tianjin to study but would be interrogated and periodically detained—the usual harassment that dissidents face, even if they’re not under house arrest.
On Thursday, he told foreign reporters that he wants to go into exile with his family and has called on President Obama to make this happen. How exactly the administration should do this is not clear. Even if he were still in the embassy, his departure would require Chinese approval—it’s only the embassy grounds that are under US control, not the road to the airport.
And now that he’s accused the Obama Administration of selling him down the river, the State Department’s motivation to spend more time on his case might be diminished. So too China’s willingness to honor its agreements now that he’s accused it too of bad faith—all within a few hours of leaving the embassy.
The simplest solution for everyone would be for China to allow Chen to go to the United States. But as in the US, this is a big political year in China. This autumn, the leadership is due to change, something that only happens every decade. Factions and interest groups in the Communist Party are jockeying for power. Some oppose any concessions with the West, seeing it as a sign of weakness. Moderates may find it tricky to prevail.
That could mean that Chen and his family don’t leave. That would hurt the Obama administration, allowing its opponents to claim it sold out a blind lawyer, preventing him from reaching safety. It would also create headaches for China: another Ai Weiwei—the dissident artist who is under a form of limited house arrest but remains a thorn in the government’s side.
But in the long run this is what China (and every country) needs—more people within their own borders willing to challenge the status quo and push change.