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When US politics and China’s security apparatus go head to head
As it spirals out of control, the case of Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese lawyer who sought refuge in the US embassy in Beijing, is becoming a major test of Washington’s long-standing policy of hedging relations with the People’s Republic. The approach has been to engage with Beijing but always to retain the ability to stand up to China if things turn sour. That possibility has usually been seen in terms of economics and military strategy in East Asia but now human rights return from the shadows to demonstrate once again the complexity of the relationship between the world’s two biggest economies.
A moving story. Hedging is a tricky business in a case like this, with the added ingredient of a Republican presidential contender, Mitt Romney, who is not going to lose any opportunity to castigate the Obama administration for being soft on a dictatorship. After the initial reports that Chen would be able to continue his legal studies in China under some kind of implicit agreement about his freedom between the US and the PRC, things started to go pear-shaped very quickly as information spread that Chen had only left the embassy because his wife was being threatened. Assurances by US spokespersons that the original agreement held were quickly succeeded by reports from the hospital to which Chen went from the embassy that he wanted to leave, even on Hillary Clinton’s plane when she flew home after the US-China Dialogue sessions this week.
If little is clear on the ground, what this episode shows again is the extreme difficulty Beijing and Washington have in finding common ground. Clinton may have started off by seeking to put human rights into a box of their own where they would not interfere with economic and strategic issues. But that is pretty much wishful thinking, given the way that China operates.
“Just let me practise.” Chen has not broken any laws and has simply asserted his right to practise on behalf of women who underwent forced abortions as part of the one-child policy. Beijing cannot pretend that it was unaware of how he was being mistreated by the authorities in Shandong – there was plenty of publicity and even a Communist Party newspaper ran an editorial querying the case. Clearly, the internal security apparatus approved of the way he was kept under house arrest and his family were ill-treated. He is far from being alone; human rights lawyers have been the target of constant repression in the past year.
The US administration cannot turn its back on Chen, and the high level of attention he receives in America is bound to bring the human rights issue back to centre stage, especially in an election year. But in the absence of a major change in the way the Chinese system operates, this means confronting the internal law-and-order establishment on a matter that Beijing regards as being of no concern to foreigners. Those who have spoken out for legal reform, starting with Premier Wen Jiabao, risk finding themselves in an awkward position, cast by conservatives as allies of foreigners who want to subvert the PRC.
Zhou gets a lifeline. If Clinton, the embassy and Washington thought the original deal could go through smoothly, they were naive. Beijing could not have accepted the idea of a PRC citizen living under foreign protection. Whether the Chinese were playing a game all along, we do not know. But the security apparatus was on the back foot after the Bo Xilai affair. Its top man, Zhou Yongkang, an ally of the shooting star from Chongqing, was seen as a man fighting to preserve his influence. But he has come back with a declaration that the law must serve the existing system – plus an order to all judges that they must swear a loyalty oath to the Party.
On the other side of the world, Mitt Romney is going to emphasize the perceived weakness and fumbling of the US administration, undermining the President’s attempts to make the best of a bad affair. His position is further weakened by the increasingly empty theatre of the China-US Dialogue which was on display once more this week with Tim Geithner’s pleas for yuan appreciation and a vague PRC undertaking to re-examine how it subsidizes export financing.
The weakness of US policy towards China has been evident for a long time, predating the present administration. There may be no alternative to hedging in the real world, but the conservatives in Beijing can only take heart just at a moment when a reform debate had begun to seem possible ahead of this year’s leadership transition. And Romney can only welcome a stick with which to beat the White House.