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The Talented Mr. Chen Guangcheng

Chen Guangcheng’s saga says a lot about the evolution in Chinese political culture currently underway as well as about the maturing relationship between China and the U.S. Not long ago, this ‘crisis’ could have severely impacted bilateral relations between the two countries; today, it appears to be a minor irritant, based on a spirit of compromise and common sense that has apparently prevailed.

While the manner in which events have unfolded has been dramatic, at least part of the drama stems from Mr. Chen himself – having made a dash for the U.S. embassy, having apparently agreed to be resettled, and then demanding to be given the freedom to seek asylum in the U.S.

What Mr. Chen must have been thinking when he agreed to resume life outside the walls of the U.S. embassy is a mystery, but it could certainly have been a well orchestrated effort to maximize his exposure while at the same time embarrassing the Chinese government. If so, he succeeded brilliantly.

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.

By the same token, through the incompetence of the ‘minders’ keeping Mr. Chen in detention at the compound in Shandong, the Chinese leadership has inadvertently fomented greater popular support for the blind dissident. Though by agreeing to self-imposed exile to the U.S. (call it a pursuit of studies if you wish), Mr. Chen has diminished his ability to affect meaningful change in China – this cannot be done from outside the country.

Mr. Chen deserves credit for having done as much as he has done to expose the rampant corruption in Shangdong province and to once again demonstrate to the outside world how much still remains to be done by the Chinese government to improve human rights and the plight of the less fortunate in Chinese society. To have done so outside the limelight of Beijing (until last week) and to have championed a cause (individuals with disabilities in China) that few others had tackled, demonstrates how talented Mr. Chen is. The flip side of that is that Mr. Chen has now bungled a golden opportunity to maintain pressure on the Chinese and Shandong provincial governments from inside the country.

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. If only the two nations could do the same with respect to some of the larger and more pressing issues that impact their relationship – such as the value of the yuan, China’s bullying of some of its neighbors, and its refusal to support UN resolutions that have near universal support from the world’s nations.