Foreign Policy Blogs

Two Views on the Chen Guangcheng Controversy

Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng with the U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke. Source: Google Images

Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng with the U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke. Source: Google Images

This week, I discuss the U.S. domestic reaction to the Chen Guangcheng case. In this post, I also have the pleasure of featuring guest analysis by Atlantic fellow Helen Gao, an emerging voice on U.S.-China relations (see Gao’s story archive here). Last week, I wrote about new polling on Americans’ foreign policy views; next week, I’ll write about worldwide opinion of U.S. foreign policy. This post on Chen Guangcheng lies at the crossroads of these themes.

My take:

Over the past two weeks, the American media and foreign policy blogosphere has covered the Chen Guangcheng case with the kind of breathless, blow-by-blow reporting and analysis typically reserved for the vicissitudes of U.S. presidential campaigns. Chen Guangcheng’s story—and the tense diplomacy between the U.S. and China over his fate—has far overshadowed not only the landmark foreign investment agreement that came out of the U.S.-China talks last week but also the Bo Xilai saga, with its tabloid-friendly details of red Ferraris and espionage. In the United States, the Chen Guangcheng case has placed a spotlight on how Americans see their role in foreign policy and how they evaluate the Sino-American relationship. In China, the case reveals the tensions that exist among the state, the media, and ordinary citizens as their narratives of breaking events collide, a theme that Atlantic fellow Helen Gao, a Chinese citizen based in the U.S., will address further down in the post. In terms of what the Chen Guangcheng case reveals about domestic politics and popular opinion in the U.S., I suggest the following:

  • Many Americans perceive the Chen Guangcheng case as a prime opportunity to defend political freedom on the world stage. As I suggested last week, American support for expensive military interventions with high human costs will likely continue to dwindle over the next few years. However, the drive to reduce the military footprint does not signal the end of American citizens’ commitment to humanitarian and human rights causes overseas. Historically, Americans have had significant interest in human rights abroad (something I hope to address in another post), occasionally forming diverse and dedicated coalitions around rights issues. For instance, the Save Darfur campaign brings together organizations that include the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Humanist Association, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, among many others. In 2000, when legislation against human trafficking was moving through Congress, both Gloria Steinem and Charles Colson lent their support to the bill. The Chen Guangcheng situation is similar in that it resonates with liberal, conservative, religious, and secular Americans alike. After all, during his career as a legal advocate, the blind Chen Guangcheng’s clients ranged from people who were forced to have abortions or become sterilized in conjunction with the one-child policy to “a dwarf who had been refused a business license because of his height.” Chen Guangcheng will be as welcome in NYU lecture halls as he will be in Midland, Texas evangelical congregations.
  • Following from the first point, the Chen Guangcheng case is important enough to Americans that it is already a political football in the 2012 elections. This reality suggests that despite domestic economic concerns, foreign policy will still get plenty of airtime in the lead-up to November. On Thursday, during a Virginia campaign event where Michelle Bachmann endorsed him, Mitt Romney addressed allegations that the U.S. Embassy had encouraged Chen to leave American protection despite Chen’s fears over his own safety (today’s New York Times has detailed and clarifying behind-the-scenes coverage of the diplomatic negotiations). As Romney declared, “If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom and it’s a day of shame for the Obama administration. We are a place of freedom, here and around the world, and we should stand up and defend freedom whenever it is under attack.” Later, Republican senators Kelly Ayotte and Lindsey Graham drafted a resolution that “included criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the diplomatic crisis, support for Chen’s work in China against forced abortions and language chastising China.” This resolution is completely unfeasible from a diplomatic standpoint and serves as a perfect example of election-year opportunism, but I think that it represents how portions of Americans from both sides of the spectrum actually feel.  Given how strongly liberal institutions like Amnesty International have also supported Mr. Chen, it is not too difficult to imagine how a Chen Guangcheng situation under a Republican presidency would spark a similar resolution from senate Democrats.

While Chen Guangcheng’s plight has prompted an activist response from many Americans, the U.S. government is caught in a diplomatic obstacle course, trying hard to reconcile its commitment to global democracy with its vital relationship with China. Though some interpret the case as evidence of strained U.S.-China relations, I believe that recent high level decision-making demonstrates that leaders in both governments clearly understand the domestic political pressures that the other side faces.  As an Associated Press analysis characterizes Chen’s tentative law studies in the U.S., the resolution is “a face-saving measure for all involved.”  The reality that each government will make significant concessions in order to maintain a relatively stable status quo characterizes the current state of U.S.-China relations, a state that has historical precedents dating from 1972. In sum, although the Chen Guangcheng case is momentarily important because it reveals key elements of U.S., Chinese, and bilateral politics—and although it is inherently important because it concerns the life and work of an unusually courageous and determined human being—I do not think the case in and of itself will come to define the Sino-American relationship in the long run or leave a lasting mark on U.S. politics. As for Chinese politics, I turn to Helen Gao.

Helen Gao’s take:

The political tussles and chaotic debates in the United States over the most appropriate way to handle the Chen Guangcheng case creates a strong contrast to the Chinese government’s dogged display of annoyance and displeasure at a foreign power’s overt meddling in its domestic affairs. On the day that Chen Guangcheng walked out of the U.S. embassy, the Chinese government issued a stern warning to U.S. officials, expressing strong dissatisfaction with the U.S.’s move to shelter Chen and demanding an apology from Washington. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman stonewalled inquiries from Western journalists about Chen’s plight and denied any ill treatment Chen described having received from the government. The party newspapers, in a dramatic change of approach, broke their silence on the affair and blanketed their editorial pages with accusations of Western powers’ “relentless effort to pick fights with China” through the Chen Guangcheng incident, as an editorial published on May 4 edition of the Beijing Daily asserted. “Chen Guangcheng has become a tool and a pawn for American politicians to blacken China,” the editorial argues. “But perhaps as they well know in their heart, such ridiculous performance will only allow them to boast about these quarrels for a little while, and will not win them wide reciprocal response from the Chinese public.”

Behind the iron curtain of the official propaganda campaign to vilify Chen and America’s rescue efforts, the Chinese government has demonstrated remarkable tolerance in other respects, considering its not-so-glorious track record of coping with dissidents who have embarrassed the government on the international stage. In the Beijing hospital where Chen has been staying since leaving the U.S. embassy, he has had easy access to Western reporters through the telephone. Chen even participated in the Congressional hearing over his case through a long-distance call, in which he freely complained about Chinese officials’ reneging on their pledge not to harass him. His plea to leave China on Hillary Clinton’s plane back to the U.S.–a slap to authorities in Beijing–was met with the Chinese government’s tentative agreement to allow him to study in the U.S. while retaining Chinese citizenship. While some Western critics have rightly pointed out that it may be in Beijing’s favor to have Chen out of the country, others perceive the government’s decision as a major concession.

Almost from the very second when Chinese officials announced their agreement to let Chen leave, state media outlets rushed to adopt a victorious tone, shifting emphasis away from condemning the U.S. to framing the case as evidence of China’s dedication to rule of law. “The incident offered a lesson,” a Global Times editorial comments. “Rather than deliberately confronting the hostility-fueled criticisms, the best way to deal with harassment is to stick to the rule of law.”

Like in many previous social and political incidents that have unsettled the Chinese leadership—for instance, the Wenzhou high-speed rail crash or the downfall of former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai—censors in Beijing try to ban or twist public discourse over the Chen case to cover up the splash the news created when plopping into what they hail as “a harmonious society.” If their efforts in earlier cases have largely failed to prevent the news from ripping across society through social networks like Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-style service, their handling of the Chen episode has in fact caused an unexpected backlash they have had to scramble to contain. After all, when the nationalistic Beijing Daily editorial called Chen “a tool and a pawn for American politicians,” it evoked so much anger and ridicule on social networks that by the end of the day, the name of the paper itself became a censored term. Many Chinese also find China’s demand for an apology from the United States over the Chen case absurd. “The side that persecuted its people asks the side that extended a helping hand to the persecuted to apologize–what kind of logic is that?” one user asks on an online forum.

Still, for a nation with 1.3 billion people, most too bogged down by their personal concerns to seek information on social issues that lie behind state censorship, Chen Guangcheng’s name arouses not awe or indignation, but bewilderment. “Who is Chen Guangcheng? How did he become so famous?” one post on a Chinese Internet forum asks. “I heard he is from Shandong province,” someone answers.

In Chinese official and unofficial realms, from apathy to curiosity to anguish to relief, the Chen rollercoaster has stirred up an amalgamation of emotions that often feed into each other: Chinese officials’ dogged demand for an apology from America over the Chen case has driven its citizens to fill the Internet with furious remarks, remarks that drive up the anxiety levels of the government censors, anxiety that oozes from the lines of official editorials. Chaos like this in today’s China often makes it easy for people to remember that sometimes speech is not the genuine display of emotions, and silence is not always a viable alternative. On May 4, the Beijing News, a relatively liberal Chinese publication, joined the coordinated state media assault on Chen and the U.S., running an editorial titled “American Diplomats Should Not Trespass Their Duty,” criticizing U.S. diplomats in China for overstepping their role by “bringing Chinese citizens to U.S. embassy through abnormal means.” Then, in a fascinating move, the paper’s official Weibo account posted a message at midnight that day: alongside a black-and-white photo of a sad clown smoking a cigarette, it reads: “In the still of the deep night, removing that mask of insincerity, we say to our true selves, ‘I am sorry.’ Goodnight.”

“My tears started to flow when I saw this message. Has knowing shame really become our moral baseline?” a Weibo user asks. “We do not have the right to say no,” writes a veteran Chinese journalist, “and we don’t even have the right to not say.”

The next day, after the message had been online for almost 24 hours and forwarded nearly 10,000 times, censors took it down, a sluggish response from an apparatus known for its lightening speed.



Julia Knight

Julia Knight is a graduate of Yale's Ethics, Politics & Economics program and a proud resident of New York City. She grew up as an American expatriate in Singapore and has traveled extensively, mostly in Asia and the Middle East. Professional experience ranges from criminal justice research at a public defender in the South Bronx to foreign policy research at a think tank to local government in Connecticut. She is interested in the ways that U.S. foreign policy and U.S. domestic policy interact, particularly in terms of American competitiveness, foreign citizens' perceptions of the United States, and job creation at home and abroad. In her free time, she enjoys drinking coffee, swimming, visiting New York's museums, and trying to learn Persian.