[Viewpoint] A blockbuster political thriller

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[Viewpoint] A blockbuster political thriller

Unless you were on the moon this past week, you could not help but be captivated by the story of Chen Guangcheng. For any who believe that human rights is a “low politics” issue, not nearly as preoccupying for national leader like traditional security and economic, they should think twice about such a generalization. The Chen story had all the drama of a blockbuster political thriller movie with car chases, secret phone calls and high stakes for both the United States and China’s leaders.

A blind legal activist who revealed and protested a Chinese government campaign of forced abortions and sterilization practices against women in his province, Chen had been persecuted by the government over the past seven years, which included jail time on trumped up charges and house arrest at his home in Shandong Province in eastern China. Prior to the past week’s events, Chen made the Western news cycle for a failed attempt by the Hollywood actor Christian Bale (of Batman fame) to visit Chen in December 2011. Bale, who was promoting a forthcoming movie filmed in China, “The Flowers of War,” had heard about Chen’s activist work and wanted to meet the man at his home. When the Batman star arrived, security details forcibly expelled Bale and his cameraman from the entrance to Chen’s village of Dongshigu.

On the evening of April 22, Chen scaled the walls of his compound - eluding the sleeping guards, but breaking his foot in the escape. With the help of friends and activists, Chen journeyed 500 miles to Beijing where he was put in contact with U.S. embassy officials. Chen’s request was to seek U.S. medical attention for his injury and to avoid an almost certain punishment for his escape. U.S. officials agreed to help, classifying this a case of humanitarian assistance, and set up a rendevous to transfer Chen from to a U.S. embassy car.

Chinese officials got word of the hand-off and chased after the embassy cars and Chen. In a quick hand-off in an alleyway, Chen jumped into the U.S. embassy car, which then sped through the streets of Beijing with Chinese internal security in hot pursuit. The car made it through the embassy gates, sparking the biggest political crisis in U.S.-China relations in recent memory.

Chen was safely inside the U.S. embassy, where he would remain for six days as U.S. and Chinese negotiators feverishly sought a solution. The stakes were raised when Secretaries Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner landed in Beijing for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. While the S&ED is the biggest annual bilateral dialogue between the two countries, its importance was overshadowed by the diplomatic crisis.

The Chinese government harshly criticized the U.S. for interfering in domestic affairs and demanded Chen’s release. Secretary Clinton maintained that the U.S. would stand for universal human rights. In the end, Chen accepted a deal negotiated between the two governments to leave the embassy for a local hospital where his foot would be treated and where he would be reunited with his family. Dramatic pictures showed Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke escorting the blind dissident out of the embassy to the hospital.

But the crisis did not end there. Soon after entering the hospital, Chen changed his mind and urgently called for the U.S. to take him out of the country. Chen even asked that Secretary Clinton take him to the U.S. on her plane when she left Beijing. That did not happen, but the Chinese government agreed to allow Chen to apply to study abroad (at New York University, courtesy of longtime legal activist Jerome Cohen) provided he applied through regular channels.

While this provided a face-saving way for the U.S. cabinet secretaries to depart Beijing without claiming defeat, the issue is far from resolved. Chen still sits in virtual house arrest in a hospital and U.S. diplomats have had very limited access to him. Authorities in Beijing assert that Chen’s health (a broken foot and a digestive ailment) mean that he won’t be traveling anytime soon. Meanwhile, all of Chen’s supporters have been detained or have gone missing.

A crisis of this nature is extremely difficult for both sides and physically draining for the negotiators. If Chen is not released, then the U.S. would look as though it botched a negotiation and allowed a very important human rights activist to suffer a horrible fate. It would lend to the perception, whether correct or not, that the Obama administration places human rights at the bottom of its to-do list with China, and far below things like currency revaluation, cooperation on Iran and, by the way, the S&ED.

For China, Chen’s continued detainment would paint them in a highly unflattering light. And if they let him go, it would set precedents that other dissidents might follow. But these would seem to be the least of the problems caused by the case of Chen Guangcheng. For Beijing, Chen’s exploits were especially threatening because of the growing role of social media as an actor in politics. Beijing used to have a monopoly on the control of information, which handsomely complemented their political rule. But this is no longer the case.

Almost instantaneously known to the world, and outside the control of Chinese censors, Chen’s story spread like wildfire through the Web and social networking tools. Chen’s network of supporters tweeted, texted, SMS’ed, and Facebooked information to both keep Chen safe and keep the international spotlight on Beijing. Today, China spends more annually on its internal security forces than on national defense by an order of $5 billion. The challenges for China in this regard, however, may be too great.

*The author is professor at Georgetown University and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

by Victor Cha
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