The Cable

The real fight for Chen Guangcheng begins now

Following six days of intense diplomacy, the United States and China struck a deal allowing blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng to leave the protection of the U.S. Embassy and start a new life with his family inside China. But the U.S. government and human rights groups are warning that getting the Chinese government to honor ...


Following six days of intense diplomacy, the United States and China struck a deal allowing blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng to leave the protection of the U.S. Embassy and start a new life with his family inside China. But the U.S. government and human rights groups are warning that getting the Chinese government to honor the agreement will be a difficult, months-long effort.

As Chen began his first night in a Beijing hospital, he was already expressing concerns that he might be abandoned by his friends in the U.S. government, who received him after a daring escape from house arrest in Shandong only days before. “Nobody from the embassy is here. I don’t understand why. They promised to be here,” Britain’s Channel 4 quoted Chen as saying. Meanwhile, the State Department was in overdrive Wednesday communicating to anyone and everyone that U.S. officials had not told Chen his wife would be beaten to death if he didn’t leave the embassy, as Chen told the Associated Press from his hospital bed.

Chen later implored U.S. President Barack Obama to secure his escape from China altogether. “I would like to say to President Obama — please do everything you can to get our family out,” he told CNN.

“The embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised to have people stay with me in the hospital, but this afternoon as soon as I checked into the hospital room, I noticed they were all gone,” he said though a translator.

The episode highlighted the challenges of enforcing the terms of the deal struck with Chinese authorities. The agreement included a reunion between Chen and his family at a hospital where he could receive attention to an injured foot. It also stipulated that the Chinese government would treat Chen and his family humanely, that they would be relocated, and that Chen would be allowed to study at a university.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, who was deeply involved in the negotiations, told CNN Wednesday that the U.S. government alone could not be responsible for enforcing the deal and that the entire international community had to mobilize to ensure Chen’s safe treatment.

“What we have been able to do is provide the base, but it will be important for the U.S. government, for non-profits, for his many friends, admirers, and supporters to create a support network for him that protects him, that supports him, that encourages him in the way ahead,” Campbell said.

That call for outside help was echoed in a Wednesday morning conference call with NGO leaders in Washington. Administration officials on the call included State Department Counselor Harold Koh and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner from Beijing, with NSC Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power joining from Washington.

Multiple NGO leaders on the call told The Cable that the administration officials urged the human rights community to stay active on the Chen case but didn’t offer any specifics as to what they were planning to do about it going forward.

“We heard a broad call to arms that we all monitor what happens to Chen and his family in the days weeks and months to come. There weren’t any specifics offered up,” Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, told The Cable. “They said repeatedly that they are on it, they are trying to stay in constant contact with him and others, which is straightforward and accurate. From where we stand, the question is how vigilant everyone remains in the months ahead.”

Richardson offered several specific recommendations. The State Department could assign more manpower to the case and decide what reciprocal actions might be taken if the Chinese government reneged on its promise to treat Chen and his family fairly, she said.

But the NGO community writ large has little faith that China will live up to its side of the bargain without steady and firm pressure.

“The most important thing is that everyone should acknowledge this is not over. Chen has chosen to stay in China based on commitments made by the Chinese government that if history is any judge are unlikely to be fulfilled over the long term,” said Tom Malinowski, HRW’s Washington director. “The U.S. government needs to engage on this as intensively after these high level meetings this week, to stay in touch with Chen’s associates and be ready to press hard publicly and privately if and when the China goes back on these commitments.”

The Chen case is an opportunity for the United States to reposition itself on the issue of human rights in a way that aligns American foreign policy with the Chinese people, he added.

“Chen is more than a dissident; he’s a folk hero,” Malinowski said. “This is someone who the Chinese people are rooting for. The fact that the only power in Beijing willing to protect him was the U.S. gives the U.S. government the moral high ground in this drama in the broader Chinese public.”

That theme was echoed in a statement by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), one of the few Republican leaders to weigh in on the Chen case Wednesday.

“The Obama administration should not let this moment pass. The Chinese government should be put on notice this case will have an impact on future relations between our two nations. We have leverage to use, but we need the will to do so,” Graham said. “The case of Mr. Chen is fast becoming a defining moment in U.S.-China relations.”

The Mitt Romney campaign was silent Wednesday on the issue.

Frank Jannuzi, the Washington director of Amnesty International, told The Cable that the timing of the incident, just before 200 U.S. officials are set to begin two days of talks in Beijing, was important because it showed that human rights concerns can’t be separated from the broader U.S.-China relationship.

He also noted that U.S. officials on Wednesday’s conference call staunchly defended their handling of the case and promised to stay engaged.

“The message was consistent, that at no time did Chen ask for asylum, that the U.S. government did not pressure him to make one choice or another, and that the U.S. government will be following his case for days months and years to come,” Jannuzi said.  “We’ll see what the morning brings in Beijing.”

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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