IDSA COMMENT

Chen Guangcheng and US-China relations: An Epilogue

May 3, 2012

A report from the official Chinese news agency Xinhua in Beijing on 2 May stated that, “It is informed here Wednesday that Chen Guangcheng, a native from Yinan County of eastern China's Shandong Province, entered the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in late April and left of his own volition after staying there for six days.”1

This mundane pronouncement marks an end to the drama and speculation that Chen’s escape from house arrest had sparked. The issue has indeed been resolved before the scheduled start of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue on 3 May and presumably with the blessings of the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who is currently in Beijing.

An article in the Global Times appearing on the same day commented on the irrationality of the Western press in making Chen out to be a cause célèbre2. It further emphasised the inadvisability of American interference on the issue, which would not only violate the taboo of non-interference in China’s internal matters but could possibly set a precedent wherein every Chinese citizen dissatisfied with the handling of his “petition” would seek the help of the US embassy. The article ends with a line speculating on the decision by the US on the matter, which could possibly satisfy both Chen and the Western media. It is to be wondered if the departure of Chen from the US embassy “of his own volition”, will be explanation enough.

According to the New York Times3, US officials have confirmed that Chen had indeed been transferred to a medical facility and united with his family. Although the report speculates on whether or not Chen will be granted asylum, such a prospect is now extremely unlikely. Especially since other sources indicate that Chen had never sought asylum in the first place and that, apart from assuring his personal safety, Chinese authorities have also agreed to relocate him to a safe place where he can attend university.4 Chinese websites have reported that during an interaction with journalists, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Weimin deemed the US involvement in the affair highly irregular and amounting to interference in China’s internal affairs, which will never be acceptable to China.5 Liu further stated that China has asked the US to apologise for the incident, conduct a thorough inquiry to punish those responsible and ensure that such incidents do not reoccur.

Liu reportedly also said that China has noted the importance attached by the United States to its demands and concerns. It is this statement that seems most telling. Few details have as yet emerged over the terms of Chen’s departure from the US embassy in Beijing. It is to be expected that the Chinese authorities have assured his personal safety. How these assurances are to be ensured and what this means for the future of Chen’s activism remains uncertain. That Chen left the US embassy “of his own volition” and did not seek political asylum is explanation enough as far as the US is concerned. After all, a man cannot be granted asylum against his wishes!

Some observations can be made on the nature of the US-China relationship based on the developments in the Chen Guangcheng affair. First, both countries are clearly keen to maintain stability in the bilateral relationship. Contentious issues will therefore not be permitted to jeopardise the relationship. Second, the balance of power in the bilateral relationship is certainly shifting in China’s favour. The quick resolution of the matter indicates that China will not countenance any perceived interference in its internal affairs and this is a position that the United States has had to accept. This is reflected in Liu’s remarks on American understanding of China’s demands and concerns. While demands for an apology, an investigation and assurances that such incidents do not reoccur may be taken with a pinch of salt, it is evident that the United States had no cards up its sleeve to bargain with. That US embassy officials have been quoted as characterising this particular case as “extraordinary” with little expectation of such a “repetition” suggests that the US is obviously unwilling and unable to bring to bear any sort of pressure on China. The human rights issue can thus be said to have been delinked completely from the larger bilateral relationship. At some level, this attests to the erosion of the “principled position” the Unites States has sought to maintain in its foreign relations. A divorce between American national interest and the ideology of political liberalism, as espoused by the United States, seems increasingly imminent. What can be expected in the future is perhaps a co-piloted US-China relationship, wherein the pre-eminent global power will have to give up the lead and learn to be led instead.

  1. 1. “Chen Guangcheng leaves U.S. Embassy in Beijing”, Xinhua, 2 May 2012,
    http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2012-05/02/c_131564088.htm.
  2. 2. “Xieyang Zizhong de shidai yijing guo qu” (The era of relying on the support of foreigners has already passed), Global Times, 2 May 2012, http://yn.people.com.cn/comment/cool/n/2012/0502/c228512-16995548.html.
  3. 3. Jane Perlez, “U.S. Says Blind Chinese Dissident Is Now in Beijing Medical Facility”, The New York Times, 2 May 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/03/world/asia/chen-guangcheng-leaves-us-embassy-in-beijing-china.html?hp.
  4. 4. Mathew Lee, “Blind activist goes free after promises of safety”, Associated Press, 2 May 2012.
  5. 5. “Waijiaobu jiu Chen Guangcheng jinru Meiguo zhu hua shiguan shi da jizhi wen” (Foreign Ministry answer to Reporter’s question on Chen Guangcheng’s entry to US Embassy), Xinhua net, 2 May 2012, http://www.ce.cn/xwzx/gnsz/gdxw/201205/02/t20120502_23289053.shtml.