U.S.-Chinese Relations Hampered by Dissident
May 4, 2012
Arriving in Beijing, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner got more than they bargained for, finding themselves knee-deep in controversy over blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. Hoping to deal with strategic economic issues, including the Chinese currency, the yuan, the last thing the U.S. wanted was an unwanted distraction. When Chen disappeared April 22 off Chinese streets, rumors held that he received political asylum in Beijing’s U.S. embassy. Hillary has been a vocal critic of the China’s persecution of the 40-year-old activist, who regularly protested his government’s forced abortions and sterilization policies. Since Chen’s disappearance, U.S officials have been mum about his whereabouts, rumored tucked away in the U.S. embassy, creating the current hubbub with the communist Chinese government.
Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, where Chinese authorities rolled tanks over pro-democracy protesters, the U.S. has vocally protested Chinese repression. Chinese authorities have essentially told the U.S. government to mind their own business. Chen’s case presents problems for Obama’s reelection campaign, trying, on the one hand, to show Chinese economic and political mastey, and, at the same time, not cowing to Chinese human rights abuses. Human rights abuses are always thorny issues when attached to a human face. Before his April 22 disappearance, Chen complained about government beatings and harassment. Chen admitted to U.S. authorities he and his wife were beaten for speaking out against China’s “One-Child” policy, requiring forced abortions and sterilizations. Before Clinton and Geithner’s visit, U.S. officials tried to resolve the Chen case.
To release Chen from the U.S. embassy, China agreed to give he and his wife safe passage to study at an unnamed university, retaining to his role as a vocal government critic. After released to a Beijing hospital, Chen apparently changed his mind and asked to leave China. “He wants to leave and he want to leave as soon as possible,” Chen told CNN by telephone. U.S. and Chinese officials said Chen left the U.S. embassy on his own accord, then apparently reneged, realizing that he and his wife were in danger. Human rights watchers believe Chen faces “serious threats to his immediate family members were made by Chinese” after leaving the U.S. embassy, said Bob Fu, whose Texas-based human rights and religious group ChinaAid monitored the Chen incident closely. Fu believes that Chen was involuntarily released from U.S. custody before Clinton and Geithner’s arrival.
According to Fu’s report, dissident Hu Jia said his wife Zeng Jinyan had spoken to Chen’s wife who confirmed government threats. Fu insists that “reliable sources” indicate that Chen’s departure from the embassy was not voluntary, suggesting the U.S. threw Chen under the bus. U.S. “has abandoned Mr. Chen,” said Fu in a statement. U.S. officials denied they knew about threats to Chen or his family, or, for that matter, that he now wanted to leave China. Up until Chen’s release to a Chinese hospital, U.S. authorities denied knowing anything about harboring the dissident at the embassy. Given the high-wire politics of dealing with China’s economic issues, having Chen in the background would have eclipsed Clinton and Geither’s mission. When you consider the importance of China to the U.S. on the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. had to put the Chen mess aside.
Clinton and Geither have a tall order getting China to eventually float its currency to improve the U.S. trade imbalance, currently in China’s favor. Problems in the Eurozone and potential downturn in China make successful trade talks even more significant. Resolving the Chen mess was essential to moving ahead on more pressing issues, especially China’s leverage on Iran. “The question to my mind is whether in China this turns into a political football in a very political season,” said former Clinton administration China expert Ken Lieberthal. Given current political conditions, Obama can ill-afford any high-profile failures on the world stage. Flying to Afghanistan to announce an eventual end to the Afghan war shows the lengths to which White House goes for positive publicity. Any perceived failure in Beijing would hand GOP nominee Mitt Romney some red meat.
State Department officials did a responsible job resolving the Chen mess. With so much at stake, Obama couldn’t allow Chen to sabotage U.S.-China relations, at a crucial time when the U.S. needs China’s support more than ever on the U.N. Security Council. China has recently reduced oil imports from Iran, putting more pressure on Tehran to contain its nuclear program. Whether admitted to or not, the U.S. relies more heavily on China to deal with new atomic developments and missile launches in North Korea, applying pressure on Syria to stop Bashar al-Assad’s brutal civilian crackdown in Syria and buying oil exports from South Sudan. Letting Chen upend U.S.-China relations would be shortsighted and counterproductive. Instead of grandstanding on human rights, the White House did the right thing staying focused on real business and letting China resolve its own internal problems.
About the AuthorJohn M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma
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