Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest on 22 April and is widely believed to be sheltering at the US Embassy in Beijing. According to The New York Times, several supporters who apparently aided his 300-mile flight from Shandong to China’s capital have now disappeared.
Known as the ‘barefoot lawyer,’ Chen is best known in the country for his work against forced abortion and sterilisation carried out in the name of China’s strict family-planning policy.
Commentators are scrambling to unravel the implications for US-China relations and to predict the likely outcome. So what are the main issues at stake?
Human rights under scrutiny. “Battered but indomitable Chen has brought to global attention to the political perversions of a one-party state where the judicial system, instead of protecting individuals, is used to repress them,” wrote Peter Foster on a Telegraph blog. Admittedly, Chen’s experience may not reflect that of the average Chinese citizen, but the fact that one individual can bring state abuses to light should be celebrated, argued Foster.
Batman star Christian Bale attempted to visit Chen Guangcheng during his house arrest, but was prevented from entering the village, according to The Daily Beast.
US-China relations. John Lee said in Time that the US and China will each be looking for a “face-saving solution,” but that this will be difficult to achieve. US authorities will be keen to maintain “regional credibility” as a world power that advocates political freedom; and President Obama will aim to avoid seeming weak on China, a charged levelled at him in the past. But “for China, the stakes are likely even higher,” wrote Lee. “If it allows a passage for U.S. authorities to fly Chen out of China, Beijing will fear establishing a prominent precedent for other prominent dissidents to try the same escape.”
The New York Times reported that Chen Guangcheng may have provided Chinese authorities with a “face-saving path,” after he appealed for the intervention of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in a video released after his escape: “That could allow Beijing to blame local authorities for the mistreatment, even though the culture of abuse and trampled rights starts at the top.”
To intervene or not to intervene? The Chen Guangcheng case raises important questions about US policy on foreign intervention, said a Christian Science Monitor editorial: “Achieving a balance of doing too much with not doing enough seems like an endless dialog.” The difficulty comes in balancing domestic benefit with foreign obligations: “Somehow America needs to arrive at a way to balance each weighty call of humanity with its own call to heal itself, especially a frail economy.”
Watch the video released by Chen Guangcheng after his escape: “Dear President Wen Jiabao, I finally escaped.”
Silence is the solution (for now). “American officials know that making public pronouncements now about human rights can only backfire. Instead, their silence implied that they are using quieter tactics in order to provide China enough diplomatic cover to set Chen free,” wrote Dan Levin at The Daily Beast.
Several supporters of Chen Guangcheng have been detained by Chinese authorities in the aftermath of his escape, human rights activists told The Guardian, while others are in hiding.
Asylum not necessarily the answer. It seems likely that Chen will eventually accept asylum in the US, wrote Steven Mufson in The Washington Post. But if the experience of other Chinese dissidents is anything to go by, the blind activist may face tough times ahead should he opt for America. “Chinese dissidents who have gone into exile in the United States have gained freedom, but most have lost stature,” wrote Mufson. And Chen would be unable to continue his work on the ground as a lawyer for women in rural areas; “his mission in the United States would be different.”