Status of Chen Guangcheng a thorn in Sino-US talks
Another melodrama is now unfolding in China with the escape from house arrest of Chen Guangcheng , the blind human rights activist who is now believed to have sought refuge in the US embassy in Beijing.
Chen, 40, is a self-taught lawyer who had been jailed for more than four years apparently over his exposure of forced abortions and sterilisations as a result of China's one-child policy. Since his release in September 2010, he had been confined to his home along with his wife, mother and daughter.
Chen's flight is the second time in three months that Chinese authorities have been humiliated. In early February, Wang Lijun, a former police chief of Chongqing, sought refuge in the US consulate in Chengdu, triggering an ongoing political crisis that has already ousted Bo Xilai, a rising Politburo member.
While Wang was a reckless cop caught in the jostling for power by party heavyweights, Chen was just an ordinary citizen voicing grievances of injustice. The pair perfectly paint a picture of today's China, where officials and people alike have little trust in government.
In recent years, Chen has become a symbol of defending human rights. Chinese internet users and foreign reporters risked physical attacks to try to visit him. Even official Chinese media outlets have paid attention. Last October, a commentary in the Global Times criticised the handling of his case, noting that 'people now even tout Chen Guangcheng's case as a mirror of human rights conditions in China'. Unfortunately, from the mirror, viewers can only see the rampant violation of human rights by local officials and a central government deaf to complaints.
Chen caught international attention early on. Newsweek featured the 'barefoot lawyer' in a cover story in 2002, and Chen and his wife toured the US the following year. In 2006, Time magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. After he had been jailed and put under house arrest, international campaigners and dignitaries frequently called for his freedom, including an appeal by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton late last year.
The timing of Chen's flight could not be worse. Clinton and US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will attend the two-day strategic and economic talks in Beijing from Thursday. Before the key consultation, however, Chen's status nettles both sides.
Apparently, neither side wants Chen's case to affect their co-operation. A White House aide said President Barack Obama wants to strike an appropriate balance between advancing human rights and maintaining US relations with China. Meanwhile, Washington has dispatched Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell to Beijing in an effort to strike a deal.
But it doesn't appear that such a compromise will be easy. Chen is not Fang Lizhi, the Chinese scientist who sheltered in the US embassy for a year before leaving for the US, following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Fang was then on the wanted list by Chinese police; Chen is not. This will make the case to offer him asylum harder.
For Americans, refusing to protect Chen is unimaginable, particularly in an election year. But for Beijing's leaders, as they prepare for a leadership transition, it is also unimaginable that the government cannot address justified complaints by a citizen so he has to seek protection from a foreign country.
A possible solution might be that the central government guarantees the safety of Chen and his family in Beijing while dealing with his grievances in Shandong. At the same time, US diplomats would be allowed access to him.
No matter the outcome, Chinese leadership has to seize the opportunity to push for the long-lagging political reform. With China's international status, a lack of basic human rights and social justice in the country is not only a pity for the Chinese people, but also a disaster for the whole world.
Yun Tang is a member of the World Affairs Council of Washington, DC. firstname.lastname@example.org