It looks like the intense international focus on the plight of blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, an implacable foe of China’s forced abortion policies who escaped from years of house arrest just over a week ago, might have produced a thin ray of hope.
Chen, who is back in Chinese custody after leaving the U.S. embassy under murky circumstances for treatment at a Beijing hospital, was able to place a surprise phone call to an emergency meeting at the House of Representatives yesterday, speaking with supporters from both Congress and human rights groups. He stated his desire to leave China with his family and seek sanctuary in the United States, and pleaded for a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
There’s no sign of such a meeting being arranged yet. The Associated Press reports that Clinton met with Chinese leaders yesterday, but she was already in Beijing to attend a scheduled summit meeting, and nobody knows if Chen was discussed. The Administration has, thus far, preferred to speak in general terms about America’s commitment to human rights.
The American government relies upon China to finance a good deal of its deficit spending, so maybe the Administration literally cannot afford to confront the Chinese government over the treatment of one man and his family. What a sad comment upon America’s role as the beacon of liberty that would be. The language of freedom should never come slowly to the Leader of the Free World.
On a more practical diplomatic level, it could be argued that official demands from Washington would make the Chinese government more intransigent, since they can’t afford to be seen as meekly accepting orders from foreign powers, particularly since the older generation of leaders is set to retire later this year. Alas, no one in the international community ever seems reluctant to bark orders at the American government. At any rate, there must be ways official support for Chen could be expressed without seeming unduly provocative.
There is some reason to hope the unofficial support pouring in for Chen has gotten Beijing’s attention, for as the AP reports, the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Friday released a statement that reads, in its entirety: "Chen Guangcheng is currently being treated in hospital. As a Chinese citizen, if he wants to study abroad he can go through the normal channels to the relevant departments and complete the formalities in accordance with the law like other Chinese citizens.”
This is a “slight concession,” as the AP describes it. His “application” to the relevant departments could always be kept in limbo or denied, and nothing in the Foreign Ministry statement addresses the fate of his family. His wife is still being kept under surveillance, and Chen said the Chinese government got him out of the U.S. embassy by threatening her life. If he gets to be a “student” abroad while his family remains in China as hostages, he’ll be on a very short leash.
Secretary of State Clinton hailed the Foreign Ministry statement as “progress” toward helping Chen “have the future he wants.” Chen sounds willing to play along, as the New York Times reports he issued a four-point statement to a friend via telephone, in which he said he did not want to seek political asylum in the United States, but he was offered a fellowship by New York University, and hoped to “go to the United States and rest for several months.” The State Department emphasized that his wife and two children should accompany him on this academic adventure.
As with everything else about the Chen saga, there are conflicting reports about how much access American diplomats have to the celebrated dissident. The New York Times says Clinton applauded “a visit by American Embassy staff and an American doctor to Mr. Chen in a Beijing hospital on Friday, the first time they were able to see him in person since late Wednesday.”
The Associated Press paints a different picture:
The positive tone aside, U.S. diplomats were unable to meet Chen personally for a second day Friday, able to talk only by telephone. U.S. Embassy deputy chief of mission Robert Wang entered the grounds of Chaoyang Hospital carrying food and later meeting Chen's wife, Yuan Weijing.
Chen, in his remarks to the AP, said his phone calls to American officials "keep getting cut off after two sentences." His wife, when she is allowed out of the hospital, has been followed by unidentified men who video-record her, he said. And one of his friends was beaten up trying to visit him.
Jiang Tianyong was taken away and beaten by state security agents when he tried to visit Chen Thursday evening, causing him hearing loss in one ear, Jiang's wife said Friday.
Of course, no matter how circumspect the Administration tries to be, China’s government-run media still demonizes them. The Beijing Times sneered, “The fact that the U.S. brought up the issue of Chen Guangcheng does not mean that the U.S. really has any good will, but that it is full of desires to put on a show. They look like they are thrilled about finding a tool and a chess piece for messing things up for China.”
Actually, everyone on the U.S. side of this crisis looks about as far from “thrilled” as they could be. What matters is the safety of Chen and his family. If they get out of China, it’s a win. The question is whether Beijing is prepared to lose gracefully. The most truly encouraging positive sign is an emerging narrative that Chen’s mistreatment was entirely a matter of vicious local officials who went overboard. If Beijing is willing to swallow that, everyone else can probably choke it down as well. What Chen Guangcheng has to say about his government’s treatment of others is even more damning than the way they’ve been treating him.