Chen Guangcheng would join a long line of Chinese dissidents sent into exile, the Chinese government calculating the value of a prominent political activist removed from the scene. That is small comfort in Chen’s challenge to government authority. He has become a figure of even greater global prominence, his profile suggesting the limits of the government’s brutality. China won’t fare well in the image department if something awful happens to Chen.
The story is extraordinary, Chen, blind, escaping house arrest, covering the 300 miles from his home to Beijing, finding refuge in the American embassy. Then the account becomes murky, a deal seemingly struck that would allow Chen to stay in China, live with his family and pursue his legal studies. Once isolated in the hospital to treat a broken foot, he apparently had second thoughts. He told interviewers about threats against his family. By Thursday, he had changed his mind. He stated his desire to leave China with his family, telling the Daily Beast that his “fervent hope” is to join Hillary Clinton on her return to Washington.
The secretary of state arrived in Beijing to participate in two days of high-level economic and strategic talks with Chinese officials. Without question, the Chen matter has complicated things. Yet the timing also plays well, the challenge folded into the wide-ranging and many layered relationship between China and the United States.
Clinton has been jabbed for early in her tenure arguing that human rights should not trump other elements of the relationship, such as trade, currency and containing the likes of Iran and North Korea. Actually, her point carried a measure of subtlety. China now has much more at stake than the threat posed by dissidents.
Chinese leaders must weigh the significance against other priorities, say, a slowing economy, corruption (the Bo Xilai affair simmering) and an urban crush for jobs. Its export-driven economy depends on American and European markets. Its attempt to spur consumption at home relies in a big way on Western goods and know-how.
With Chen frightened, no longer in the safe haven of the embassy, did American diplomats prove naive, trusting that Chinese officials would let Chen stay home without harsh repercussions? They insist the choice belonged to Chen. He probably knows his greatest influence results from his presence in China. His every move (and every move against him) would have a global audience.
Crack down on Chen? Embarrass the White House? At what cost?
This is the evolution so many have wanted to see in China, a gradual easing of the party’s grip as it recognizes the importance of other items on its agenda. That makes the story of Chen Guangcheng a marker, a measure of how far China and its relationship with Washington have come.