Shadow Government

What would Bush have done for Chen Guangcheng?

The Obama administration's deal with the Chinese government over the blind lawyer-activist Chen Guangcheng initially appeared to be a diplomatic triumph, but now has turned into a serious test. The question is why.

Based on the information available at the time, I initially thought the deal was a success, as I wrote here. This was because it appeared to honor Chen's desire to stay in China, and it appeared to represent a dual set of commitments: by the Chinese Government to respect China's rights, and by the Obama administration to hold Beijing to the agreement. Unfortunately neither of those commitments has been fulfilled. The Chinese government is most to blame. It has brazenly targeted Chen and his family members, supporters, and fellow activists, to the point that he has now reversed course, and as he told a Congressional hearing yesterday, he is now seekign to leave China for the U.S. However, the Obama administration appears to have made some significant missteps as well.

In breaking this agreement with the U.S. in such a public, defiant manner, China is also questioning the credibility of the Obama administration. This was of course not a confrontation that the administration sought, focused as it was on the now-dashed hopes for a smooth Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Yet this is the test that China has presented. Signature moments in foreign policy are often not the carefully-crafted pageantry of summit meetings but the unexpected crises that test presidential leadership.

Here is where the Obama administration seems to be wanting. For all of the diplomatic skill initially shown by the U.S. negotiators, at the end of the day China's commitment to the agreement depended on their perception of how much it mattered to the top American leadership, especially Secretary Clinton and President Obama. Secretary Clinton erred in not demanding a personal meeting with Chen as soon as she landed in Beijing, as a way to show her investment in his welfare. Embassy Beijing erred by not keeping embassy officers with Chen at the hospital, at least for the duration of the SED.

While I am not privy to any personal communications that President Obama may have had with Chinese president Hu Jintao on the case, the White House's apparent silence has been telling and perhaps constitutes the biggest error. The Chinese government seems to have read this as a sign of lack of U.S. resolve, and made the calculation that it could break the agreement and resume tormenting Chen and his family without incurring any costs from the U.S.

What could President Obama have done? He should have communicated to Beijing his personal interest in Chen's welfare and made clear that any violation of the agreement would have severe repercussions for the U.S.-China relationship. The specifics of such repercussions would not need to be specified, but options could include delaying or denying a state visit for Xi Jinping once he takes power after the leadership transition this fall.

There is some precedent for this approach. As I shared in a radio interview yesterday, in 2007 President Bush arranged to meet at the White House with three prominent Chinese human rights and religious freedom advocates who were visiting the U.S. for a short time and then planned on returning to China. (As a sidenote, the Chinese activists were in the U.S. for a series of legal advocacy seminars organized by the irrepressible Bob Fu, whose own life shows that Chinese dissidents who find asylum in the U.S. can still have a substantial influence).

The morning of the meeting, the Chinese government sent an ominous threat to the White House saying that if these activists returned to China their safety could not be guaranteed. In other words, they faced the prospect of imprisonment or worse. We informed the dissidents of the threat against them and told them that the decision on whether or not to have the meeting was up to them; after saying a prayer, each one remained resolved to do so. Then President Bush had a senior NSC official send a back channel message to the Chinese government saying in no uncertain terms that President Bush took personal interest in the welfare of these three dissidents and that any harm befalling them would cause a severe disruption in U.S.-China relations. After Bush met with them, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing sent staff to meet the dissidents at the airport in Beijing when they returned, made sure they returned safely to their homes, and kept in regular contact with them. And for the duration of the Bush administration they were left alone (for more on this meeting, see Mike Gerson's book Heroic Conservatism).

Thus far President Obama has not even commented publicly on Chen's case, despite Chen's own pleas that Obama do so, and despite the Chinese government's brazen challenge to Obama's credibility. As of this writing, a way forward seems to be emerging for Chen and his family to come to the U.S. and pursue legal studies. For this deal to work, the Obama administration needs to recapture the initiative and craft the agreement in terms that make clear its commitment to the many other Chinese human rights activists who have been targeted for their support of Chen. And when Chen arrives in the U.S., President Obama should invite him to the White House for a personal meeting.

The plight of a fugitive blind Chinese legal activist was no doubt not where President Obama expected to face a serious foreign policy test, especially during a week that his campaign tried to devote to chest-thumping on the anniversary of the Osama bin Laden operation. How Obama responds now will determine much about the near-term future of U.S.-China relations. And while investing a president's reputational capital is always a risky move, it is not as risky as trusting the assurances of the Chinese Communist Party.

Rebel Pepper

Shadow Government

Beijing's agreement to release Chen Guangcheng is a success for the U.S.

Today's agreement in Beijing for Chen Guangcheng to leave the U.S. embassy yet remain in China heralds a success for the Obama administration's diplomacy, and for the cause of human rights in China. While there were no ideal solutions, this seems to be the best possible one, and was probably agreed to only with great reluctance by the Chinese government. Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and one of the Obama administration's most capable senior officials, served as the lead negotiator and merits particular credit. The pressures on the case were heightened by the imminent arrival in Beijing of Secretaries Clinton and Geithner for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED), one of the most important events on the U.S.-China calendar and a cornerstone of the complex bilateral relationship.

Yet in this case Campbell and his fellow negotiators (including State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh and U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke) appear to have leveraged the SED to their advantage based on the strategic insight that China needs the SED more than the U.S. does. This may be sound counter-intuitive, given the many issues on which the U.S. has important "asks" of China, including pressure on the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, currency reform, and maritime rights in the western Pacific. But China has been buffeted and embarrassed in recent months by the revelations of the Bo Xilai case, the tensions surrounding its upcoming leadership transition, and the growing alienation of many of its neighboring countries. Beijing needs a smooth and successful SED to help restore its image, and hence realized that it needed to compromise to achieve a quick resolution to the Chen case. Shadow Government's uber-boss, FP editor-in-chief Susan Glasser, is accompanying Secretary Clinton's delegation to Beijing and filed a thoughtful account that lays out the difficult balancing act and frailties in the deal.

Earlier this week it seemed likely that Beijing would only agree to Chen's release if he left China for asylum in the U.S. Yet this would not have been the best outcome, given that Chen would be separated from his family and no longer able to continue his activism. This recent story tells of the anonymity and ennui that afflicts many Chinese dissidents once settled in the U.S., a sad trajectory that might have been Chen's as well. Yet such is not always the case, as other Chinese dissidents have found the U.S. a congenial home from which to continue their advocacy. Such is the case with Bob Fu, now based in Midland, Texas, and whose connection to Chen included assistance with Chen's initial escape and eloquent advocacy on his behalf with the U.S. media. Bob's compelling story can be viewed here at the Bush Center's Freedom Collection.

The Chen case also occurs against the backdrop of a fascinating and largely ennobling history of dissidents in repressive countries seeking refuge in U.S. embassies. Early in the Cold War, the Catholic anticommunist leader Cardinal Josef Mindszenty of Hungary fled to the embassy in Budapest and lived there for 15 (yes, 15) years. The seven Siberian Pentecostals lived in the U.S. embassy in Moscow for 5 years until the Soviet Union agreed to their release after consistent pressure from President Reagan. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese dissidents Fang Lizhi and his wife Li Shuxian lived in the embassy in Beijing for 13 months. In each of these cases, the presence of the dissidents on U.S. diplomatic soil proved to be an irritant in the bilateral relationship -- in the short-term. But from a long-term perspective, it becomes clear that the protection offered by U.S. embassies proved a potent demonstration of America's commitment to liberty. It is a telling reminder that, for all of America's imperfections and internal challenges, our nation is still seen by freedom activists across the globe as the world's premier symbol of liberty and power. It is this combination of values and strength that explains why dissidents in authoritarian countries consistently seek out the American embassy for succor and support.

Yet these same dissidents often carry outsized and unrealistic expectations of just how much the United States can do on their behalf. As powerful as the U.S. is, there are profound limits on America's ability to reshape conditions within other countries, and particularly to guarantee the safety and freedom of dissidents. Here is where the Chen agreement seems to have accomplished about as much as it can. The Chinese government promises to allow Chen to seek medical treatment, enroll in law school, and be reunited with his family. But as an informal agreement between two sovereign states, there is no enforcement mechanism beyond the investment of U.S. prestige and credibility, and China's desire to maintain a good relationship. Still, all things considered, Chen's lot is much improved from just two weeks ago, when he languished under de facto house arrest (no doubt with Beijing's approval). He now enjoys even more global prominence, the explicit support of the United States, an opportunity to gain formal legal training, and most crucially, the chance to continue his work on behalf of his fellow citizens. Moreover, the issues to which he has dedicated his life -- freedom of expression, religious freedom, an end to forced abortions and sterilizations, respect for rule of law -- are now thrust back into the international spotlight and the agenda of the U.S.-China relationship.

The Chen situation is much more than an isolated human rights case. His life and work symbolizes the powerful contradictions besetting China: a strong state whose government seems to fear a blind self-taught country lawyer; an economic powerhouse whose overall growth still produces resentments, instabilities, and unmet expectations from many of its citizens; an emerging yet brittle superpower whose greatest strength may be found not in its growing military or economy, but in the courage of ordinary citizens like Chen Guangcheng.