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    Greater China
     May 10, 2012


Chen case exposes a shared weakness
By Benjamin A Shobert

Amid all the fury, conjecture and confusion over what to make of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng's flight to the United States Embassy in Beijing, it is impossible to overlook the most simple and yet most compelling insight his story has to offer about China: what cannot last, will not.

During last week's hearing by the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC), congressman Chris Smith (Republican - New Jersey) held a mobile phone connecting Chen from his Beijing hospital room and Pastor Bob Fu who was at the CECC hearing, so that all those in attendance or watching via webcast could hear, it was impossible to avoid the realization that the status quo in China is simply not sustainable.

For all the theorizing about the implications to how China

 

attempts to manage online discussions, limit access to politically sensitive topics via the "Great Firewall", or navigate the thousands of protests that occur every year, seeing the most prominent Chinese dissident of the moment speaking real-time during a congressional hearing makes the point abundantly clear: China's political reforms are disconnected from how technology enables and empowers dissenting voices to be heard from both within China, as well as around the world.

China's leadership, amazingly successful at driving economic growth that has directly benefited its people, has lifted more of their own citizens out of abject poverty than any other modern government, yet Beijing remains uncomfortable with the notion that it can allow broader political freedoms and greater participation without losing control and seeing the country descend into chaos. This insecurity is one the next generation of China's leaders would do well to put behind it.

Frank Wolf (Republican - Virginia) has long been one of the most faithful advocates for, and protectors of, Chinese dissidents. His one-sided view of Beijing's real intentions makes for a bracing and not always helpful alternative to conventional logic about US-China relations.

Wolf disagrees fundamentally with the real-politik calculus that proposes engagement with China will ultimately lead to political reform. His faithfulness on this matter has on several occasions led him to speak with vitriol about both the American government's naivety about China's real intentions as well as the Chinese government's ruthlessness in suppressing dissent.

This was very much his assertion during last week's hearing when he said of the Barack Obama administration's efforts that the "most generous reading is that the administration was naive in accepting assurances from a government with a history of brutally repressing its own people".

Pastor Fu, founder and president of ChinaAid Association, has long been one of Chen's most essential connections to the American community of human-rights' advocates. Fu shared that, "According to my conversation with Chen ... the US officials relayed to Chen the threats made to his wife ... it was after learning of these threats that he reluctantly left the embassy ... much of the dispute over the State Department's account and Chen's recount with the media was around how to characterize this conversation on May 2 before he left the embassy."

If Chen did not leave, he would not be able to see his family again; they would be returned to their home city, a place that has been "a hell for this family" according to Fu.

Amid questions over what Chen understood about the position of the American government, as well as the commitments from China as he left the embassy, it is important to be cautious in drawing specific conclusions about whether Chen was sold down the river in order to smooth things over in advance of the Strategic Economic Dialogue in Beijing led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

However, what does appear impossible to overlook is that Chen's situation was made worse by subsequent actions and statements made by parts of China's government. These parts might have been acting on their own, and may well face punishment from higher powers within the country in time, yet Chen's back-pedaling make it impossible to overlook the thuggish response by some parts of the country's government during Chen's attempted reintegration.

Just as listening to Chen's surprisingly resilient voice coming from Fu's mobile phone during last week's hearing is an embarrassment to Beijing, it is equally problematic for Washington. It forces even the most balanced China policy experts to directly defend a policy of engagement, and thereby indirectly seem to be supporting an oppressive Chinese government that is being shown to act in ways fundamentally incompatible with American values.

During last week's congressional hearing, Dr Sophie Richardson, the China Director for Human Rights Watch stated, "If the Chinese government was really serious about its commitments to human rights and the rule of law we would not be having these conversations again and again and again ... 30 years since the opening of China and 20 years after [the Tiananmen crackdown] the fact that we are still discussing these issues is a powerful statement about the choices the Chinese government has made."
The narrative that China would ultimately become "more like us" has been adequate thus far during bumpy periods between the two countries; but its longevity may be coming to an end as voices like Wolf's start to influence the views of more middle-of-the-road American politicians who find Beijing's treatment of Chen indefensible.

It can be easy to ignore critics like Wolf; after all, he famously decried the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for partnering with their Chinese counterparts. During a 2011 Congressional United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) hearing, Wolf managed to argue against such a partnership because, as he put it, "There will come a day when the Chinese communist government will fall - repressive, totalitarian regimes always do ... and when that day comes, books will be written about who helped sustain this government in their final days. Will US companies feature in that narrative? Will the US government?"

Wolf's passion can make it easy to ignore his assertions until something like Chen's situation presents itself, at which time his point of view comes sharply into focus within the American electorate and suddenly seems legitimate, and to many, worth acting on.

Many think such a possibility strains belief. They point back to past human-rights events that specifically involved the American Embassy, such as that of Fang Lizhi, as signs of the elasticity of the US-China relationship. Fang Lizhi was a Chinese astrophysicist and activist whose ideas inspired the pro-democracy student movement of 1986-87 and, finally, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, at which time he sought refuge in the US Embassy in Beijing and was subsequently granted asylum.

If our relationship could survive Tiananmen and Lizhi's exile, then certainly Chen should pose an easily surmountable problem. But is that an accurate linkage to make? After all, just as the world heading out of Tiananmen was a new world eager to be built on the wreckage of the Soviet Union, when it was fashionable to believe in the imminent demise of authoritarian systems of government, the world heading into the next year must confront the potential that China's brand of authoritarian political rule seems surprisingly resilient. Consequently, this crisis seems laden with more downside risk than upside potential.

Today, diplomatic crises between the two countries must be navigated with an appreciation of America's perceived weaknesses, and China's perceived strengths. Whether China is as strong as some would suggest, or America as weak, is less important than how either feels, and how these feelings influence the behavior of both during a moment of intense disagreement like that Chen finds himself in the midst of.

Popular culture within the US contains a more testy population as the economic collapse in the eurozone and ongoing economic distress in the United States continue. America could greet past diplomatic crises with China from a position of relative strength; this position has certainly diminished, as has the confidence with which America believes it can influence China.

In this sense, the Chen situation highlights the American tendency to overappreciate what the United States can do to fundamentally change China's human-rights policies specifically, or influence its internal politics more generally.

Clearly, the majority of those who testified at last week's CECC hearing do not believe this; rather, they believe America could do much that it chooses not to that would put additional pressure on China to evolve its human-rights' practices. Most believe that the Chen situation presents the United States with an opportunity to do more than talk, but rather act forcefully in a way that sends a clearer message than dialogue ever has that America will not abide Beijing's human-rights' practices, forever choosing to see these concerns as a second priority to economic matters.

Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute, shared during last week's hearing that "talk is not useful ... the Chinese interpret this as for domestic political consumption only ... it is time for action."

For those who testified at the recent CECC hearing, the right step would be to more forcefully act to ensure Chen's right to immigrate to the United States. Should Beijing act in any way to prevent this from happening, it will be all but impossible to prevent both a current deterioration of US-China diplomatic relations, as well as future diplomatic crises from escalating into much more serious problems as dialogue gives way to what Horowitz called a "time for action".

Regardless of whether or how forcefully America chooses to act, Beijing cannot forever stand in the way of further political opening. The marriage of technology and human needs means China faces a simple choice in its immediate future: either find a way to more gradually allow voices like those of Chen's to speak freely, or push the dissent further underground. The latter choice will likely only make the final revolt that much more painful and destabilizing.

Benjamin A Shobert is the Managing Director of Rubicon Strategy Group, a consulting firm specialized in strategy analysis for companies looking to enter emerging economies. He is the author of the upcoming book Blame China and can be followed at www.CrossTheRubiconBlog.com.

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