US-China Reach Deal Over Blind Human Rights Activist

Longtime Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng entered the US Embassy in Beijing last week, requesting temporary asylum, and sparking a harried trilateral negotiation between Chen, the U.S. government, and Chinese officials. Chen-who is a blind self trained lawyer and dissident-sought medical attention, but explicitly did not seek to emigrate out of China. He apparently wanted guarantees from the Chinese government that he would be allowed to live, study, work, and speak freely in the country-an ambitious request from a regime known for its active repression of political expression.

The political demands of one blind Chinese lawyer would normally go largely unreported, but the fact that Chen was seeking refuge in the American Embassy escalated his request to the level of high diplomacy. The timing of the incident was also acute, as hundreds of American and Chinese officials prepare for an annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue; a conversation already widely anticipated to be tense as Washington planned to confront Beijing over ongoing currency manipulation. The National Security Network summarized the complicated mix of issues involved: "The Chen case underscores a triple challenge for U.S. policy: standing firmly on the side of human rights; supporting the preferences of activists on the ground; and progressing on some issues while pressing disagreements on others. The Chen case, which comes on the heels of the fall of a high-level Communist Party official, represents something of a political crossroads for China."

The situation was seemingly resolved on Wednesday afternoon as a deal was struck that resulted in Chen being escorted out of the Embassy and to a local hospital for further medical care. A Senior State Department Official released some specifics about the arrangement:

Mr. Chen decided to depart the Embassy today and traveled to a hospital in Beijing. He did so on the basis of a number of understandings. China acknowledged that Mr. Chen will be treated humanely while he remains in China. During his stay at the hospital over the coming days, U.S. doctors and other visitors, including those from the U.S. Embassy, will have access to him. He has been reunited with his family, his wife and two children, at the hospital, and they will remain together with him as a family. He had not seen his son in a few years, and his wife had not seen him either, so this was a family reunification after a long and difficult separation.

When he leaves the hospital, the Chinese authorities have stated that Mr. Chen and his family will be relocated to a safe environment so that he may attend a university to pursue a course of study. I think many of you know that he is a self-taught lawyer, but he has long sought the opportunity to study in university. He will have several university options from which to choose. We understand that there are no remaining legal issues directed at Mr. Chen and that he will be treated like any other student in China. Chinese officials have further stated that they will investigate reported extralegal activities committed by local Shandong authorities against Mr. Chen and his family.

Though the State Department claims Chen's decision to leave the Embassy was un-coerced and made under his own free will, some sources are reporting that Chinese officials had back-channeled threats either explicitly or implicitly suggesting that Chen's wife and family would be in grave danger if he remained in the American Embassy. Full details about the exact nature of the negotiations and agreement are unlikely to come to light any time soon, but the most interesting part of the State Department's description of events is the continued roll of the US in Chen's case:

The United States will take a continuing interest in the well-being of Mr. Chen and his family, including seeking periodic welfare visits and raising his case with the appropriate authorities. We will look to confirm at regular intervals that the commitments he has received are carried out. We have conveyed to the Chinese Government the concerns he's expressed about friends who helped him travel to Beijing and have urged authorities to take no retribution against them.

The deal that is coming into focus appears to secure for Chen a number of promises from the Chinese government, but few guarantees. It's unclear what process or mechanism could even exist to ensure Beijing's compliance with an agreement between the Communist Party of China and a private Chinese citizen. This open-ended commitment by the United States to take some kind of responsibility for Chen, however, seems ripe for creating a new diplomatic crisis down the road if the Chinese government fails to uphold their end of the bargain. 

Update: It appears the deal that was reached on Wednesday has fallen apart as of Thursday Morning. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has said that "They as a family have had a change of heart about whether they want to stay in China," It's unclear whether Chen and his family would qualify for emergency assylum in the United States, but this latest development certainly escalates diplomatic tensions between China and the U.S.