China Policy Institute: Analysis


Chen Guangcheng

Quiet Diplomacy over Chen Guangcheng

By Steve Tsang.

Quiet diplomacy has long received short shrift from China when addressing human rights issues. The case of Chen Guangcheng, however, marks a significantly more sophisticated approach to its negotiations with the US.

If both sides maintain their composure, Chen and his family will soon be allowed to leave for the US, a striking reflection of how the two countries’ diplomatic relationship has progressed to where they can focus on shared interests and avoid differences that appear certain to put them on a collision course.

When Chen left the US embassy for a Beijing hospital, the Obama administration came under heavy fire for “abandoning” the legal rights activist to what is in effect Chinese custody. Republican challenger Mitt Romney spoke of a “day of shame”; a host of US foreign policy analysts appeared in the mainstream media to lament an American betrayal and a failure of diplomacy. I beg to differ.

It is still early days, but the signs are that, this time, behind-the-scenes diplomacy is set to deliver an outcome that is acceptable to both sides.

Prior to Chen leaving the US embassy, a deal was undoubtedly done between the US and Chinese authorities. We have been told this involved Chen and his family being relocated from their home village and Chen being allowed to study in one of seven designated Chinese law schools. We also know that Chen was told that if he did not accept this and leave the US embassy, his family would be sent back to their home village, with all that this would entail.

This deal was not workable. Unless specifically instructed to do so by Beijing, no law school or local authority in China would welcome Chen. Protecting him from local harassment while keeping him quiet over the long term are contradictory requirements for the Communist Party. It is neither a realistic nor sustainable option.

Keeping Chen in China to punish him for causing considerable embarrassment through a daring dash to a foreign embassy may well conform to Beijing’s typical treatment of dissidents. But in a turbulent year of political succession already clouded by the Bo Xilai scandal, it is not in China’s interests to come under further pressure from Washington over an issue that could easily escalate into a US presidential election point-scorer.

Chen could do far more damage to party interests from within than from overseas. His departure would remove a thorn in the party’s side.

Before Chen left the embassy, an understanding between the US and China must have been reached. The general principles are likely to have included the proviso that the rights activist be allowed to go to the US if he first returned to Chinese jurisdiction. The preferred outcome would have been for Chen to stay in China and be a “good citizen” on the condition that he did not cause further embarrassment to the Chinese authorities.

The two sides are likely to have agreed in principle that if Chen requested to leave China, it must not be ostensibly to seek political asylum. The US would refrain from publicly scoring political points at China’s expense and, in return, Beijing would ensure Chen’s safety.

All of the above have basically been adhered to since Chen was admitted to Chaoyang hospital. If a successful resolution comes to pass, it will signal an intelligent use of quiet diplomacy to prevent a politically sensitive issue from escalating into a diplomatic crisis.

This should not be diminished by the unreasonable Chinese demand of an apology from the US for playing host to a Chinese citizen at its embassy for six days. President Hu Jintao cannot afford to appear weak in the face of American pressure and this demand was meant primarily for domestic consumption.

The safe departure of Chen and his family would not only represent a victory of sorts for the activist but would also reflect skilful diplomatic manoeuvring by both the US and China, which has ultimately allowed both sides to save face.

 This article was firstly published in the South China Morning Post under the title of ‘Discretion the better part of diplomacy in Chen case’ on Tuesday 15 May 2012.

Steve Tsang is the director of the China Policy Institute and professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

Time to let Chen Guangcheng leave for the US

By Steve Tsang.

The blind Chinese activist, Chen Guangcheng, had escaped illegal confinement, sought safety in the US embassy in Beijing for six days, and has now reportedly left the embassy on his own volition. Mr Chen is now in a medical facility in Beijing, with US personnel accompanying him. Quiet diplomacy has ensured the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue will not be derailed. But the problem has not disappeared.

The Obama administration cannot afford to let Mr Chen be imprisoned in his own home again, particularly in an election year. Does this mean the Chinese government has agreed to do the right thing?

The right thing is to investigate the appeals Mr Chen has made to Premier Wen Jiabao, and if his allegations of illegal confinement, assault and torture are confirmed, put those responsible through a court of law and let the law run its course. This is what Mr Chen, a courageous blind, self-taught (and therefore not formally qualified) lawyer, is seeking.

Mr Chen is not a fugitive from the law in China. He did not escape legal custody for having broken a law and nor has he been accused of doing so. Yet he and his family had been illegally confined to their home (though they were reportedly reunited with him yesterday). His young daughter has been harassed. His wife has been badly beaten and subsequently denied access to medical facilities. Those who perpetuated such acts have long let it be known that they are employees of the Chinese authorities.

In fact, all Mr Chen did was to escape illegal imprisonment in his own home and travel to another part of his country to seek safety from his tormentors. Mr Chen has reportedly not sought asylum from the US authorities. There is no law that prohibits a Chinese citizen from entering or staying in a foreign embassy if invited. The Chinese demand for the US government to apologise for hosting Mr Chen for six days is ridiculous.

Legal niceties aside, there is a real political and diplomatic issue at hand. There is next to no chance for the Chinese government to act on Mr Chen’s plea for an investigation into abuses by its officials. It is equally unrealistic to expect that Mr Chen and his family’s rights as citizens will be upheld after international attention on this has faded. His family is still under illegal confinement and some of those who said they had helped Mr Chen to escape are now being detained.

Even though Mr Chen has stressed that he has no wish to leave China and would merely like to assert his constitutional rights, political realism suggests that he has crossed the point of no return. His daring escape caused huge international embarrassment for the Chinese leadership. The fact that this happened in the once-in-a-decade succession year when the top leadership is already preoccupied with dealing with the aftermath of the Bo Xilai scandal renders the chance of Mr Chen’s wishes being met sheer fantasy.

The least bad outcome now is for quiet diplomacy to enable the Chinese and the American governments to reach an agreement for Mr Chen and his family to leave for the US, or to a third country if necessary. The Chinese central government can always heap the blame for previous misconduct on local authorities and appear magnanimous towards Mr Chen.

This course of action has two added advantages for China’s leaders, who must overcome the erroneous notion that allowing Mr Chen’s move to the US would be perceived as an act of weakness.

First, it places the onus on the US to persuade Mr Chen to leave his home country. Second, to remove him is to remove a thorn in the side of the Communist Party; insisting he stay under house arrest in China would only serve as a rallying cry to other Chinese activists.

The risk Mr Chen will become an internationally celebrated critic of China’s human rights record, in the mould of Ai Weiwei, should he be allowed to leave China is very low.

Since Mr Chen speaks only Mandarin and his advocacy has always been about requiring the Chinese authorities to respect Chinese laws, his capacity to attract international attention will fail to endure once he ceases being the heroic victim courageously standing up against government sanctioned abuses. How many people in the West now recognise the name Wei Jingsheng – the once world-famous advocate of “the fifth modernisation” or democratisation?

The US government should secure this as a second best outcome. There is a limit to what it can do to push human rights to be upheld in China. But it can at least provide a home to heroic advocates like Mr Chen when they can no longer carry on with their work.

While exile is clearly not what Mr Chen desires, he would be well advised to accept. The political system in China is not moving towards democratisation or the rule of law, though the law is increasingly being used by the Party to maintain stability.

The regime remains that of a consultative Leninist system dedicated foremost to keeping the Communist Party in power. Realistically, Mr Chen has reached the point where he has done as much as he or, for that matter, any individual, can in the political environment of China today. It is time for him and his family to rebuild their lives.

This article was firstly published in The National under the title of  ‘Chinese dissident will continue to test US-China ties’  on Thursday 3 May 2012.

Steve Tsang is director of the China Policy Institute and a professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.


Devil’s advocates and people’s advocates: stability, the law, and Chen Guangcheng

By Jackie Sheehan.

I appreciate the spirit in which Sam Beatson’s piece on the Chen Guangcheng case was offered. It nicely modelled the leaps in interpretation to which activists like Chen are subject in China – peacefully, non-violently pointing out that officials have broken the law and violated citizens’ most basic rights elided within a paragraph or two into causing ‘instability’ and ‘mass insurrections’. And China must have stability in order to reform, as we have been continually reminded since Deng Xiaoping launched the reforms in 1978.

Chen’s particular cause – at least the one which earned him imprisonment, torture, the illegal detention of his family for seven years, the cutting off of all contact with the outside world, the harassment and strip-searching of his children when they are allowed to visit, the beating and intimidation of all his would-be visitors as well as Chen and his wife, restriction of the family’s food supply, and finally the construction of a one-household prison for them – was officials’ abuse of their power in enforcing China’s family-planning policy in Linyi city, Shandong. If the people subjected to these ‘measures exceeding conventional practice’, also known simply as ‘local methods’, in Linyi in 2005 had had proper channels to seek redress, Chen need never had ‘caused a stir’ on their behalf.

But if they had petitioned the local Letters and Visits office, or tried to go to Beijing to seek a hearing with their representatives, we know exactly what would have happened to them: they would have disappeared into a ‘black jail’, one of a number of parallel penal systems still operating in China in which people are denied the rights, such as they are, available to accused persons in the formal criminal-justice system. The citizens of Linyi were not ‘rocking the boat’ by attacking CCP policy; they were objecting to illegal actions by officials, as are the many thousands involved in land-development disputes across China every year, and as long as the CCP is above the law, the system over which it presides will continue to generate ‘instability’ of this kind. The Bo Xilai case has been called the most serious crisis for the CCP leadership since 1989, and what is its cause if not the ruling party placing itself above the law?

And think what could be achieved in China if its leaders were not spending more than the country’s annual military budget on suppressing and persecuting the likes of Chen and his family. With a dozen men on the house round the clock for seven years, and more to guard the approaches to the village, beat up journalists and other visitors, and intimidate the neighbours, even though hired thugs are not expensive in China, it all mounts up over time.

Chen has apparently now been escorted by the US Ambassador from the Embassy to the Chaoyang hospital to be reunited with his family. If the Chinese government will allow them all to leave, he may find it impossible to resist accepting exile, as many activists before him have done, despite his clearly expressed wish to remain in China, living peacefully and under the protection of the law in his own country. He will be missed if he leaves, even though there are others, professional lawyers and self-taught activists like him, who will continue to push at the limits of the PRC’s legal system to try to make it a more effective guarantee of citizens’ rights. They are not the root cause of instability, but the ones trying to show the way out of it.

Jackie Sheehan is Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute and Associate Professor of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

Some Devil’s Advocacy – Chen Guangcheng’s Escape

By Sam Beatson.

News abounds that blind dissident activist, Chen Guangcheng, made an escape to the US embassy in Beijing this week. Democratic media has provided him with a platform to air his views and requests. He calls for justice to be served on local officials whom he alleges assaulted his family and he demands protection for them. He calls on high ranking CPC Standing Committee member Wen Jiabao to investigate these matters and for corruption to be dealt with in China.

Whatever the foundations of Mr Chen’s pleas to the Party, ironic, courageous, defiant, sincere, or treacherous depending on the line you take, it guarantees to be a hot topic of private chatter in online China forums and across China itself.  Yet publicly, it will be an unspoken rule forming part of the mainland Chinese culture to not publicly mention or dig deeply into the issue because of its potential to be political. Strictly taboo, so hush, hush!

To this end I sympathise with my dear Chinese counterparts who would be forgiven for thinking, “well, it’s ok for him to discuss openly this matter”. But the question I’ve got to ask is: what causes the kind of behaviour which persecutes a blind activist like Chen Guangcheng?

Mr Chen makes himself a target because he brings shame on the Party. He shows us the faceless image of China we never, ever read about in “The China Daily,” for example. In this paper, everyone is busy running multi-billion dollar enterprises while officials proudly visit foreign factories and show off China’s cutting edge business leadership and urban development. The image presented is that everyman and his dog in China can afford to buy luxuriant brands and live in opulence. China’s a pretty utopia! This is a wonderful bit of positive thinking with some genuine merit, painting a miraculously untainted story.

But voices like Chen Guangcheng’s can be likened to the Lorax, of the Dr. Seuss story recently remade as a movie. “He speaks for the trees.” Lorax Chen speaks for ordinary people’s perceived rights. However, in China, it is not the job of the individual to speak for the people, for this is the job of the Party. China simply cannot afford instability. Don’t you know this Mr Chen? What the rights people need to know is that instability has the potential to cause the loss of so many lives at this juncture. Sadly, in China, this means people like Mr. Chen need to be hogtied. He’s that dangerous. There’s no gently, gently about this in China. And there are historical and practical reasons for this.

Famines, deaths, wars etc. could follow on from the instability caused by mass insurrections, mainly because of China’s fragility with respect to basic human needs like food. Without a happy and willing agrarian population, a $2,500,000 two-bed in Shanghai becomes worthless. Instability in China has historical instances rooted from dissatisfaction of the lower classes with the government.

The difficulty arises when the politico-economic issue get crossed with the morality issue. The Party doesn’t concede that there is a morality issue at Chen’s level, if at all. Local officials might well sanction “communist tactics” on Chen and his family. A great many would agree this is “wrong” aside from the absolute staunchest of Marxists. On the other hand, to maintain stability is the right thing to do in China and without the Party, it’s uncertain how this could be conceived.

While the Chinese government should not ignore the issue of corruption, to be fair, it doesn’t entirely. We need to recognise the Party’s having been growing and changing and there’s no present alternative to the CPC’s authority. Thus, the blind man will be criticised en-masse for causing such a stir at this time. Yet, in the eyes of the just, his requests are fair and reasonable and Chinese people appreciate justice like anyone else.

Perceived shortcomings of the Party notwithstanding, the call on policymakers is to appreciate that this is not a one-sided morality (human rights) argument, but a sensitive politico-economic issue. Democratic revolutionism is not yet the plan of the Party and perhaps wisely so.

Sam Beatson is a PhD Candidate in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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