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Friday, May 4, 2012

Has the U.S. Government Been Naive in the Chen Guangcheng Case?

Since my previous post, the Chen Guangcheng case had continued to develop. Most importantly, he has communicated to numerous people including reporters Louisa Lim, Melinda Liu, Steven Jiang and others that he now wants to leave China and is seeking U.S. assistance.

One of the issues concerning me is that some have questioned why the U.S. would believe China would keep its side to the agreement made with Chen. For example, Charlie Custer, editor of ChinaGeeks, tweeted:
Regardless of how this ends, needs to be a serious discussion in US State Dept of why the hell they would believe CN assurances on CGC.
And with some additional qualifications (which are of course more difficult to capture in a tweet) Peter Foster for The Telegraph wrote:
...it is hard to know whether the US State Department was being naive or cynical by accepting assurances that Chen would be allowed to settle down in peace with his family and study law unmolested...

However, some of the language coming from the US State Department suggested they really believed they had a "deal" that would enable Chen to remain in China. If so, they must have taken leave of their senses, and to listen to senior State Department officials involved in negotiations, perhaps they had.
Although it remains possible a major blunder has been made, I am not at all convinced the U.S. has acted unwisely or been duped. I will focus on two of the reasons I feel this way.

One, there is reason for the U.S. to give China the benefit of the doubt publicly and in the recent negotiations, whatever officials may think privately. Especially with China's role in the world so quickly changing and China seeking to increase its influence, it could be an especially opportune time for the U.S. to provide China the chance in a unique case to show it can be trusted in such a situation. If China does break the agreement then the U.S. has reasons for other approaches in the future. But if the U.S. had fully applied a belief that it must openly question China's intentions or insist on stronger oversight measures not only may have China responded in a less preferable manner in Chen's case, but an opportunity for important future gains may have been lost.

In addition to the stakes for the relationship between the U.S. and China, there is a second issue in considering whether the U.S. should be seen as foolish. Even if the U.S. had significant questions about the agreement, the decision to leave the embassy was ultimately Chen's, and there are reasons to believe he was willing to accept a less than perfect offer. At the time, Chen expressed a strong desire to stay in China and very much wanted to be reunited with his family. Also, Chen has said that he felt unfairly pressured. China's statement that they would return his wife to Shandong province if he did not leave the embassy could be perceived as a veiled threat to harm her. On the side... some have criticized U.S. officials for their refusal to characterize this as a threat, but their decision seems reasonable. If the U.S. publicly stated otherwise it would likely only anger China and create the potential that Chen would face increased difficulties. Once Chen was in China's hands, the U.S. needed to do everything possible to put the best face on matters to improve the chances for a positive resolution.

Certainly, as time passes more will be learned to better judge recent actions. But at this point, I believe some of the reasons the U.S. has been criticized could be indicative of prudent actions. Actions taken to best facilitate Chen Guangcheng's own choice in a difficult situation and to provide the best chance for improving broader conditions in the future.


Added note: As I am about to publish I see that James Fallows has recently also questioned whether it can be assumed U.S. officials have made significant mistakes. I have only skimmed his post at this point, but it appears to raise other issues, including that the U.S. had "an incredibly weak hand". I will read it and the cited material more closely. My only comment at this point is that I am encouraged to see others are urging caution in judging recent U.S. actions. You can find the post by Fallows here: More on Chen Guangcheng: The Limits of Outside Power.

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