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Are ‘Good-Faith Assurances’ with the Chinese Enough?

By all accounts, Chen Guangcheng was prepared to resettle in the United States following years of run-ins with Chinese authorities. Chen Guangcheng’s reversal from seeking asylum, to an expressed desire to remain in China and ultimately to plea for help from the U.S. State Department, including a choreographed phone call to a congressional hearing, has created a diplomatic headache for the Obama administration.

However, with the announcement that Chen might leave China to study abroad, the Obama administration would appear to have avoided a prolonged diplomatic tug-of-war. “I want to meet with Secretary Clinton,” Chen Guangcheng was overheard telling a Congressional hearing, in a conversation translated by Pastor Bob Fu, Founder, and President of ChinaAid Association. “I hope I can get more help from her. I also want to thank her face to face…I want to thank all of you for your care and your love.”

Chen’s interim decision against relocating to the United States and choosing instead to remain in China was prompted by concern for the safety of his wife and two children. The history of the Chinese government’s human rights abuses warranted Chen’s concern.

The ever-evolving nature of the negotiations to resolve Chen’s case before it irreversibly damaged US-China relations was perfectly illustrated by the Chinese foreign ministry’s announcement that Chen can apply to study abroad in the United States. “If he wants to study abroad, he can apply through normal channels to the relevant departments, according to the law, just like any other Chinese citizen,” China’s foreign ministry said Friday.

Shortly after this announcement, the U.S. State Department announced that an American university would accept Chen to a fellowship.

Daniel Wagner, of Country Risk Solutions, suggests that having Chen move to the United States allows the Chinese government to save face while at the same time, the opportunity to have a long-time critic removed from public view. “Relocating to the U.S. with his family diminishes Chen’s ability to confront authorities in Shandong province over their various abuses of power, as well as his battle to gain greater protection for people with disabilities. But at the same time, he is handing the Chinese government a great victory – voluntarily removing himself, on the government’s terms, as a very public thorn in their side,” Wagner writes.

For U.S. conservative politicians, Chen’s case represented extra significance because he, along with his wife, reported on human rights abuses, forced abortions and mandatory sterilization associated with China’s one-child policy. Further complicating negotiations is the Chinese practice of trying to control the narrative. Instead of permitting Chen to leave China, the Chinese leadership instead increased the likelihood that popular support for the blind dissident will build both internationally and domestically.

While it is unlikely that a Chen2012 campaign will sprout via Twitter and YouTube to rival the Kony2012 campaign, he has become a topic of conversation on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, which has more than 300 million registered users. Chen’s public statements often contradicted each other, from seeking asylum to a desire to only visit the United States temporarily.

What precisely sets Chen’s case apart from that of Jiang Yanyong, Shi Tao, Zeng Jinyan, Hu Jia, Liu Xiaobo, Huang Qi, Ai Weiwei and countless other activists, doctors, artists and professors who have run afoul of Communist Party officials?

Chen originally sought protection from Chinese officials. Following an escape from Chinese authorities, Chen made his way to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, where he took refuge shortly before Secretary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner were scheduled to arrive for talks with Chinese officials. Knowledge of his whereabouts was denied by the State Department for several days. After several days, Chen left the U.S. embassy to seek medical attention at a Beijing hospital for injuries sustained during his escape from his house arrest. Chen’s fate rests largely in the hands of Chinese officials, as supporters, activists, journalists, and U.S. officials are denied access to Chen.

The announcement that Chen may apply for a student visa at an American university assigns his fate to Chinese authorities. But much like the previous deal, which rested on the assurances of the Chinese government, this latest proposal could very well be rejected. Secretary Clinton described the Chinese announcement as encouraging. The United States is simply relying on “good-faith assurances” that the Chinese will uphold their end of the agreement.

Ultimately, the Obama administration will have to offer the Chinese a way to save face in order to resolve Chen’s current predicament. However, while Chen Guangcheng has complicated US/Sino relations, temporarily, the episode does illustrate how nuanced and matured Sino/U.S. relations have become. “As for the state of Sino/U.S. relations, this episode demonstrates how far the two nations have come in a short period of time toward achieving a common objective,” writes Daniel Wagner.