By Rukmani Gupta
The escape of human rights activist, Chen Guangcheng, from house arrest in late April has once again trained the spotlight on the issue of human rights abuse in China and even more dramatically, the position this issue occupies in the larger US-China relationship. Chen Guangcheng, famous for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in Linyi, Shandong province, undertaken in pursuit of the One-Child policy, is a blind, self-educated rights lawyer who was jailed for four years in 2006 on charges of disrupting public order. Since his release in 2010 he has been under “house arrest”. However, he reportedly escaped from his rural home in Shandong and is said to be hiding in a safe location in Beijing. It is widely speculated that this “safe location” is none other than the US Embassy. Although the US has not publicly confirmed that Chen is at the US embassy, he is believed to be under US protection. The unscheduled visit of US Assistant Secretary for State, Kurt Campbell, to Beijing over the weekend, lends some credence to this belief. Campbell’s visit is seen as an attempt to negotiate Chen’s future with Chinese authorities. Coming days prior to the start of the fourth US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED), scheduled for May 3-4, for which both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will be in Beijing, the issue of Chen Guangcheng has the potential to overshadow discussions that would otherwise presumably focus on Syria, the DPRK and maritime issues. That both sides are keen that this does not happen is evident. US President Obama, in a press conference on 30 April, avoided making a statement on Chen saying only that he was aware of news reports regarding him. Chinese foreign ministry officials, on their part, have stated that the SED will proceed as scheduled.
For both the US and China, human rights is an increasingly tricky issue. While the United States is keen to be perceived as adhering to principles of human rights, freedom and democracy in its international dealings, the fact remains that its ability to pressure China on the matter has steadily eroded. From his first visit to China in 2009, Obama has been criticised for being soft on China as far as human rights issues are concerned. On that first visit undertaken amid much fanfare, Obama had steered clear of any reference to the turmoil in Lhasa or Urumqi. He had in fact reiterated the US’ One-China policy. More recently, in the wake of the self- immolations in Tibet, the Obama administration’s standard response has been that it has made clear to Chinese leaders its serious concerns on China’s human rights record and policies in Tibet. Although a Human Rights Dialogue was instituted between the two countries in 2011, it is unclear whether any substantial progress has been made in aligning the views of the two sides on the issue.
Coming on the heels of the now infamous flight of Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, to the US consulate in Chengdu, it is likely that Chen’s case will receive much attention. Although there were some voices that asked why the US did not grant asylum to Wang Lijun, the US has emphasised that Wang Lijun left the consulate of his own accord. In addition, the fact that he was part of the corrupt ruling elite made the American position understandable. With Chen Guangcheng, US inaction cannot be that easily explained, especially in an election-year.
Given that Chinese authorities have taken the Wang Lijun incident very seriously, it is unlikely that they will readily countenance an American role on the issue of Chen Guangcheng. In the process of leadership transition, another dent in the image of the Communist Party of China, keen to portray itself as committed to progressing the rule of law, would certainly be unnerving for those who value stability above all. The video released by Chen Guangcheng after his escape exhorts Premier Wen Jiabao to ensure that the law is upheld. This essentially exposes the contradictions between reality and the goal of greater freedom and accountability that Premier Wen has frequently espoused. To be associated with blatant hypocrisy will certainly not strengthen the legitimacy that the Party has sought to reinforce by emphasising the rule of law in dealing with the Bo Xilai affair.
According to the sparse reports available on the Chinese internet, Chen has already stated that he does not seek to gain asylum and would like to stay on in China. This could well provide a way out for the two sides. Chen could thus possibly be exiled to Hong Kong or be sent to the United States for “medical treatment” rather than be granted political asylum. His case then could mirror that of Fang Lizhi in the wake of the Tiananmen protests in 1989. However, it should be remembered that Fang did have to stay at the US embassy for a year before he could be moved to the United States and in 1989 the US was more able and willing to confront China on matters of “principle”. At present, Chinese power and the complexities of the US-China relationship will require that any such confrontation be shelved. An understanding on the issue of Chen Guangcheng therefore cannot be expected to be reached prior to the SED. It will quite possibly require much time and many rounds of negotiations for the two sides to come to an agreement which does not cause either to “lose face”.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/ChenGuangchengandUSChinaRelations_rgupta_010512