Chen Guangcheng in Limbo as China Warns Domestic Dissidents

Chen Guangcheng may have left the U.S. embassy, but the diplomatic war is just starting. By Duncan Hewitt.

Ed Jones, AFP / Getty Images

After several days of behind-the-scenes negotiations between Chinese and U.S. officials, the Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng has left the U.S. embassy in Beijing, where he fled last week after escaping house arrest in his home village in eastern China’s Shandong province. China’s official Xinhua News Agency said Chen had left “of his own volition.”

U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke accompanied the activist, who is blind, to a hospital in Beijing for treatment to injuries sustained during his escape. Officials said he was to be reunited with his family there. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in Beijing on Wednesday ahead of a session of the bilateral Strategic and Economic Dialogue, said China had given assurances that Mr Chen would be well treated in future, and allowed to take up higher education.

The announcement brings some degree of resolution to what threatened to become a major stand-off, ahead of the high-level talks, which start in Beijing on Thursday, with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner also in attendance. Yet the tension does not seem to have been completely smoothed over: A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, quoted by the official Xinhua news agency, accused the U.S. of interfering in China’s domestic affairs by taking Chen into the embassy. He said this was “totally unacceptable,” and called on the U.S. to apologize, investigate the incident, and punish those responsible.

It’s the latest twist in a case that has sparked tension between China and foreign countries for some years now. Foreign governments have raised Chen’s case repeatedly with China since the self-taught legal activist from a village in Shandong’s Linyi County was jailed in 2006 after angering the authorities with a campaign to help women avoid forced abortions by local family-planning authorities. He was sentenced to more than four years on charges of damaging property and obstructing traffic.

After his release in 2010, local officials confined him to his home, though this was not part of his original sentence, and launched a massive security operation to prevent anyone from visiting him. Chen has alleged that local officials committed acts of violence against him, his wife, and mother, while his daughter was barred from attending school until last year. Those who tried to visit him also faced violence—including Hollywood actor Christian Bale, who attempted to go to the village late last year and was beaten by security guards. Asked about the case a few days later, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said dismissively that Bale “should be embarrassed” about his visit.

Some observers have expressed surprise that Beijing allowed the case to fester for so long—and see it as raising worrying questions about China’s attitude to the rule of law. Yet others view this hardline approach as an indication of the growing influence of China’s security establishment on policymaking over the past few years. As Willy Lam, a specialist in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, puts it, these relatively authoritarian elements “want to strike a pose of defiance as far as the international arena is concerned, to tell the world, we’re a fast rising semi-superpower—don’t interfere with us.” And he says this approach is also designed to send a warning to domestic dissidents and activists that the authorities are not afraid of taking tough action against them if necessary.

Still, it’s a strategy that sits awkwardly with China’s stated desire to improve its international image. As Yiyi Lu, a Beijing-based expert on China’s global image, puts it, “China is very conscious of its image now, and the Foreign Ministry should have said, Chen’s case is a problem, people keep raising it.” But, she adds, “it seems as if no one is taking overall responsibility” for such matters.

There’s also evidence that the hard line may not always have the desired effect. Chen’s escape, aided by other activists, has raised questions about the capacity of the security operation (which he has claimed cost almost $10 million). And the fact that dozens of ordinary citizens, who had heard about Chen’s case via the Internet, tried to travel to his village over the past year to show their support, is a reminder of growing “civil disobedience.” The tough line therefore, may only alienate some sections of society still further.

It remains to be seen how the Chen case will affect relations between China and the U.S.: with China in the midst of the sensitive run-up to a leadership transition this fall, Beijing clearly did not want the ongoing humiliation of a high profile citizen remaining under U.S. diplomatic protection on its own territory. With Chen now out of the U.S. embassy, it’s not clear how serious the Chinese demands for an apology are—after a U.S. spy-plane crash landed at a Chinese airfield in 2001, the U.S. made a statement expressing regret, which China translated as a formal apology, though the U.S. said that was not exactly the case. And one Chinese newspaper said today, before news of Chen’s departure, that the incident “will not affect Sino-U.S. relations.”

Yet the incident is likely to continue to cast a shadow over this week’s bilateral dialogue. And with the U.S. in an election year, questions about Washington’s handling of the affair may also be raised back home. Earlier this year, when the former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, who had fallen out with his boss, apparently sought asylum at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, he was quickly persuaded to turn himself over the Chinese authorities, a decision that received little criticism. In Chen’s case, however, some diplomatic sources had noted that his claim for asylum would be much stronger. Further details about why he has remained, at least temporarily, in China, will be eagerly awaited.