The US-China Summit Became The Chen Guangcheng Event – Major International Publicity For Human Rights Story Highlights China’s Dilemma: When Will Political Reforms Be On The Agenda?

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By Paolo von Schirach

May 5, 2012

WASHINGTON – The long scheduled US-China Summit in Beijing, part of an established practice aimed at having periodic high level contacts between the two countries, interestingly enough morphed into the “Chen Guangcheng Story”. Forget about currency and investment issues, we want to know about the daring escape of this Chinese lawyer protesting against forced abortions and what will happen to him.

The escape

We know the story. The blind human rights activist, after a successful escape from house arrest in a rural Province, managed to get to Beijing and into the US Embassy, seeking American protection. Still, leaving aside the complicated (and unclear) sequence of events, including alleged mistakes and misunderstandings between Mr. Chen and US officials, the fact of the matter is that the high level US-China Summit was completely obliterated by the daily headlines updating the world on the latest installment of the Chen saga. Consider this: a single case of human rights abuses obscured a major bilateral event, featuring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner. All this negative publicity is not good for China.

Political legitimacy

Whatever will happen to Mr. Chen and his family, (it looks as if they will be allowed to travel to the US where he will be able to study law at NYU), and whatever will happen to his brave friends, (those who helped him escape and make it into the US Embassy), this highly publicized incident underscores the fact that the Chinese Government sooner or later will have to deal with its most fundamental problem: political legitimacy.

China under closer scrutiny

Until recently it was relatively easy to silence or isolate dissidents through the usual police measures. But now this is becoming more arduous, as the Chen cases illustrates. Actions get noticed. And this is mostly because China’s new wealth and prestige attract more scrutiny both internally and internationally. Domestically, something like public opinion is developing. People are more informed and more connected, and they are more and more inclined to protest. A more affluent and better educated Chinese middle class is not as passive as the country used to be.

Which is to say that the old tacticts of intimidation and repression, while still available, are used more sparingly and with more circumspection. Increasingly the Chinese authorities begin to realize that what they do gets international media attention, that domestic approval has to be considered, while world opinion also matters.


But this new scenario in which some form of “approval” is deemed to be necessary creates a huge dilemma. Is the best course of action to resist change, no matter what? Conversely, if reform and liberalization are indeed inevitable, how fast should they proceed and how far should they go? It is clear that, if reforms in the future will go anywhere near the level of full democracy, then the days of the current leadership and of all its internal mechanisms are numbered.

America’s role

Which course will China choose? Nobody really knows. But I suspect that the leaders will try gradual opening. If this is the case, we should wish China well. The world would benefit if China is both prosperous and politically stable. That said, while America should deal with this enormous issue of possible political reform in China with great caution, it should also remember that its earned reputation of defender of human rights carries huge responsibilities. Do remember that in Chinese popular jargon the expression “Safest Place” means the US Embassy. Chen sought refuge in the US Embassy, not in the Russian or Cuban Embassy.

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