WASHINGTON — Even before a blind human rights lawyer slipped away from house arrest in rural China last week, Washington and Beijing were each trying to navigate a turbulent time in their internal politics and their relationship. Now they are trying to avoid their worst diplomatic spat in years.
Although U.S. officials are mum, Chen Guangcheng’s supporters are believed to have outwitted his guards and then spirited Chen several hundred miles from his village to seek refuge with U.S. diplomats in Beijing.
As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top U.S. officials left Washington on Monday for previously scheduled annual talks in Beijing, diplomats from both countries scrambled to find a way to solve Chen’s case without undermining efforts to improve economic and security ties.
A senior U.S. diplomat, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, flew to Beijing on Sunday to discuss the case with Chinese officials. Activists and former U.S. officials say the most likely outcomes are Chen’s departure for the U.S., an agreement by China to end harassment of him, or his traveling to a third country.
Former Chinese and U.S. officials say they believe leaders on both sides want to work out a deal. There are a range of international issues before them: North Korea, Iran, Syria and the weak global economy. China is still nervous about President Obama’s announcement late last year of a pivot in U.S. diplomatic and military policy to focus on the Asia-Pacific region. But for both governments, domestic politics may limit their room to maneuver.
In a sign of the sensitivity of the case, President Obama pointedly declined to respond to questions at a White House news conference Monday as to whether Chen was under U.S. protection, if secret talks were underway to resolve the crisis, or whether the United States would grant Chen political asylum if he asked for it.
Obama said only that he was “aware of the press reports on the situation in China.”
“What I would like to emphasize is that every time we meet with China the issue of human rights comes up,” Obama said, familiar diplomatic language that is unlikely to limit the administration’s maneuvering room.
However, Obama’s China policy faces tough scrutiny from Republicans in an election year. He was criticized for U.S. actions in a scandal that is already rocking China’s political establishment. A Chinese police official entered a U.S. Consulate in February seeking protection because of his accusations against his boss, Politburo member Bo Xilai, who was later sacked. The official, Wang Lijun, left the consulate and was reportedly taken into custody.
Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, over the weekend called for unflinching support of human rights in China.
Chen has long complained of China’s harsh enforcement of its policy that limits each family to only one child, and he angered authorities in rural China by exposing forced abortions.
A Chen confidant, Texas-based activist Bob Fu of the China Aid Assn. human rights group, said Monday that talks between U.S. and Chinese officials were well underway and that it was likely Chen would be brought to the United States despite his reluctance to permanently leave his home country.
Some analysts say the case could become as serious as the dispute over the collision of a Navy spy plane and a Chinese warplane over the South China Sea in April 2001, which caused the Chinese jet to crash and the U.S. aircraft to make a forced landing in China.
There is precedent for U.S. diplomats protecting Chinese dissidents. Diplomats refused to turn over Fang Lizhi and his wife, who were wanted by Chinese authorities after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. China allowed the couple to leave the country the next year.
Chen’s surprise escape came at an extremely sensitive time for the Chinese leadership. Already faced with a once-in-a-decade transfer of power, it has been buffeted by the sensational case of Bo, whose wife has been accused of murder in connection with the death of a British businessman.
Analysts say Chen’s case gives the outgoing leadership a chance to back up its contention that the rule of law is paramount in China. But hard-liners in the security establishment could undermine a deal by arguing that the government should firmly resist any American meddling in China’s affairs.
“Some will say, ‘We can’t let the U.S. do this,’ and then we may have a very big problem,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, who was top Asia advisor to President Clinton and is now with the Brookings Institution think tank.
Chen made a video appeal to Premier Wen Jiabao to protect his wife and daughter, whom he left behind in his village in the eastern province of Shandong.
“This puts China in a dilemma, as the government has spent the better part of the last month telling people China is a law-governed society and law-based government,” said Victor Shih, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. “The Chinese government should then, according to law, protect Chen Guangcheng, who has not broken any laws.”
Though state media have tried in the past to cast the abuse of Chen and his family as an isolated local issue, Phelim Kine, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, says the case is emblematic of a nationwide breakdown that starts at the top.
“The fact is that the Chinese central government of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao passively or actively condoned, if not outright encouraged, local government officials and security forces in Shandong to victimize Chen Guangcheng and his family for years,” Kine said.
The rounding up of Chen’s supporters after his escape has taken place in several cities, erasing any doubt that the central government had a role in orchestrating the blind activist’s detention, critics say.
Chinese Internet censors have also expanded their list of banned terms to include “blind person” and references to the U.S. Embassy, where Chen is believed to be sheltered. One of the latest forbidden terms is “UA898,” the United Airlines direct flight from Beijing to Washington on which Chen would presumably travel if released.
Chen is said to want to stay in China with guarantees of his safety. Fu, the Texas activist, said that after conversations with U.S. officials, he had concluded China was unlikely to offer such guarantees.
But as a face-saving measure, he said, China could agree to allow Chen to leave for the United States to receive medical treatment for various ailments.
If diplomats can’t find an agreement that Chen will accept, he may end up staying under U.S. protection for a protracted period, a destabilizing factor in U.S.-Chinese relations.
Douglas Paal, a China specialist and former U.S. official, said Chinese security authorities may worry that every dissident can seek political asylum, and may believe that they “need to cool that off as soon as possible.”
Paal, who is now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that if there was no agreement soon, the Chinese might refuse any concessions the United States has hoped for in upcoming strategic talks. But there is also a risk, even if only small, that “the talks could fall apart, and the two countries begin a period where they’re throwing names at each other through the election year.”
Richter reported from Washington and Pierson from Beijing.