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Debacle in Beijing

Debacle in Beijing

The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders have little leverage to shape China’s future. This isn’t to say that China is permanently stuck in an authoritarian quagmire and outsiders can only watch. On the contrary, people like Chen Guangcheng show how China is changing: from the grassroots up, by ordinary citizens willing to assert their rights and push change.

Chen lived in the countryside, never took a “capacity-building” seminar of the sort Western NGOs like to offer, and instead taught himself law. He used it most famously to challenge forced abortions and sterilizations, which although not as prevalent as before, are still part of the country’s draconian one-child policy. The fact that he was blind only added to his appeal among ordinary Chinese.

But like people on the cutting edge of social change anywhere, he suffered. He was jailed, released, and had been spending years under house arrest—a new way for authorities to control activists without going to the courts. Eventually, he got fed up and about two weeks ago made a desperate flight to Beijing. It’s understandable that he would want to flee. That he had no particular game plan also seems clear—he just wanted to get out. And when he arrived in Beijing last week, he definitely needed help. His foot was injured and he was separated from his wife and children, whom he had left behind in his native Shandong province.

His decision to go to the US Embassy was interesting and one hopes that in time we will learn more about his motives. Though their cases were radically different, perhaps it reflected something of the same reasoning that of the Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, who in February fled to the US Consulate in Chengdu when he felt he was in trouble—that if one has problems with the Chinese state, the United States can help.

For Americans who fret about their country’s decline, that’s a comforting thought. But it also hugely overestimates US influence in China. It’s not that the United States and other countries can’t do anything. Outsiders can insist that until China meets its own laws on due process, torture, and extra-judicial detentions it won’t be a fully fledged partner of any Western democracy. But the idea that the United States can make a powerful country like China change its political and legal system simply by insisting on it—by “doing something”—is delusional.

This view is often found among Americans running for President. Democrats and Republicans alike have a habit of calling on Washington to demand progress on human rights in China. This started in 1989, in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre, when the United States put enormous pressure on Beijing to allow freedom of speech and other basic liberties. Usually, all it got was the release of a couple of dissidents. Today, with China many times stronger, the US has even less influence.

Still, US diplomats gamely took Chen in last week and began negotiating. But they had an incredibly weak hand. Chen had two losing propositions: stay in the embassy and hope that one day he could be allowed to leave for the airport and take a flight to the United States. This would have been the Fang Lizhi option, as Perry Link so well describes on this site. After Tiananmen, the famous physicist and his wife took refuge in the US embassy and spent a year there before being allowed out.

Unlike them, however, Chen did not have his wife with him so the prospect was that if he could leave at all, it would be without her (and his two children) and to hope they’d not be mistreated in his absence and be allowed out later. Chinese officials had brought them to Beijing during the negotiations but reportedly said that if he didn’t leave, they’d be sent back home.

Another reason exile has become unappealing in the years since Fang Lizhi’s departure is that most dissidents who flee abroad sink into irrelevancy. Cut off from China, many of them unable to speak English or another foreign language, they become the equivalent of Cold War émigrés, unable to do much more than write blogposts (all blocked in China) and testify before Congress.

So Chen took the other option and left the embassy Wednesday. US diplomats told him they had assurances that he would be reunited with his family and be allowed to study law at a university in the neighboring city of Tianjin. They also promised to keep international attention focused on him. But leaving the embassy meant going back into the breach and he quickly began to have doubts. His wife told him that she had been bound to a chair and threatened with violence before coming to Beijing. His lawyer, Teng Biao, bombarded him with phone calls urging him to return to the embassy and seek exile, according to transcriptions of those talks.

Soon, Chen was making various assertions, including that US officials told him that if he didn’t leave the embassy, his wife would be beaten. This seems implausible given that State Department lawyers were advised by one of the sharpest China human rights lawyers, Jerome Cohen. Cohen is a strong supporter of Chinese dissidents and acted as Chen’s advocate in the negotiations. He has backed US Ambassador Gary Locke’s statement Thursday that Chen was not coerced or tricked into leaving.

Shortly after leaving the embassy, Chen also said that China had already reneged on its promises—perhaps because of the secret police he encountered in the hospital. More likely is that he realized he was back in the same China he left; that he might be able to go to Tianjin to study but would be interrogated and periodically detained—the usual harassment that dissidents face, even if they’re not under house arrest.

On Thursday, he told foreign reporters that he wants to go into exile with his family and has called on President Obama to make this happen. How exactly the administration should do this is not clear. Even if he were still in the embassy, his departure would require Chinese approval—it’s only the embassy grounds that are under US control, not the road to the airport.

And now that he’s accused the Obama Administration of selling him down the river, the State Department’s motivation to spend more time on his case might be diminished. So too China’s willingness to honor its agreements now that he’s accused it too of bad faith—all within a few hours of leaving the embassy.

The simplest solution for everyone would be for China to allow Chen to go to the United States. But as in the US, this is a big political year in China. This autumn, the leadership is due to change, something that only happens every decade. Factions and interest groups in the Communist Party are jockeying for power. Some oppose any concessions with the West, seeing it as a sign of weakness. Moderates may find it tricky to prevail.

That could mean that Chen and his family don’t leave. That would hurt the Obama administration, allowing its opponents to claim it sold out a blind lawyer, preventing him from reaching safety. It would also create headaches for China: another Ai Weiwei—the dissident artist who is under a form of limited house arrest but remains a thorn in the government’s side.

But in the long run this is what China (and every country) needs—more people within their own borders willing to challenge the status quo and push change.

Topics: 
Ian Johnson is a Beijing-based writer who specializes in civil society, culture, and religion. For thirteen years, Johnson worked at The Wall Street Journal, where he was a page-one feature writer...

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This article was first published at the NYRBlog on May 3, 2012.

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The Quiet Heroes of Tibet

PANKAJ MISHRA

Earlier this year, shortly before boarding the new Chinese train from Beijing to Lhasa, I met Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist (she uses only one name). Unusual among Tibetans in China, who tend to avoid talking to foreigners, she spoke frankly about Chinese rule over Tibet....

Mission to Mao

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto, the Soviet Union and...

China’s Great Terror

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own...

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a...

PU ZHIQIANG

The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of Department 1 of the Beijing...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)

PERRY LINK

Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the trait that most determined his...

A Little Leap Forward

NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a question about the hard-line...

AsiaWorld

IAN BURUMA

1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

Found Horizon

IAN BURUMA

1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West

IAN BURUMA

Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

Divine Killer

IAN BURUMA

“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace

IAN BURUMA

1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery

ORVILLE SCHELL

1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan

IAN BURUMA

Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong

IAN BURUMA

1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong

IAN BURUMA

1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment

JONATHAN MIRSKY

The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End

IAN BURUMA

Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster

JONATHAN MIRSKY

In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

History on the Wing

JOHN K. FAIRBANK

Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American relations during the golden...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping

JOHN K. FAIRBANK

When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study...

The Last Days of Hong Kong

IAN BURUMA

1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.”—Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in...

Keeping the Faith

FANG LIZHI

On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age

JONATHAN MIRSKY

Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy

JOHN K. FAIRBANK

To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our...

The End of the Chinese Revolution

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan

NATHAN GARDELS

Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Passing the Baton in Beijing

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Rules of the Game

JOHN GITTINGS

On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards

JOHN GITTINGS

Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier

JOHN GITTINGS

In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a trainload of forty-two...

A Mao for All Seasons

MARTIN BERNAL

A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...