By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
The bargain that the Obama administration thought it had made with China, regarding the fate of blind human rights legal advocate Chen Guangcheng, has now fallen apart. The New York Times reports that American officials admit to “bungling” the case. U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf scolded the administration for taking China’s promises at “face value.” CNN suggests that the U.S. was “naïve”, and the LA Times calls the situation a “diplomatic train wreck”.
Telnaes, the Washington Post.
As is now well known, Chen escaped a brutal 19-month house arrest in Shandong Province that was illegal even under Chinese law, fleeing hundreds of miles to the American Embassy in Beijing. He spent the next six days under the protection of American diplomats, who negotiated with the Chinese authorities for his safety.Chen was emphatic in his desire to remain in China. He sought a deal where the Chinese government would promise him certain rights and freedoms (technically, no more than any Chinese citizen is due under the Chinese Constitution). China and the U.S. reached a deal where Chen would leave the Embassy, be reunited with his family, be restored his freedom, and allowed to study law in the city of Tianjin, far from Shandong Province.
Within hours of leaving American protection, however, Chen was saying that Chinese authorities were not honoring their agreement. He was isolated and intimidated by plainclothes police. It became clear to Chen that his safety, and the safety of his wife and two children, were in danger as long as they remained in China, regardless of China’s promises.
It is now reported that Chen will leave China for a fellowship at New York University, where noted Chinese legal scholar Jerry Cohen is based. (Chen’s ability to return to China has not been, and is unlikely to be, guaranteed.) President Obama is now facing withering criticism from human rights advocates and the Republican presidential candidate, who called it “a day of shame for the Obama administration”.
Why Did This Debacle Happen?
How could seasoned American diplomats have negotiated a deal that fell apart so quickly and so catastrophically, endangering the safety of an innocent person and his family, and sustaining political damage to President Obama as he kicks off his re-election campaign?
According to the CIA’s former top China analyst, Christopher Johnson, the administration was so focused on the “opportunity for a tactical victory” that they neglected the “possible strategic downside.” Essentially, they let hope overcome reason.
University of California Professor Yang Su, writing for CNN, noted that the deal “sounded like a win-win solution” because it would resolve the problem and allow China to save “face”. But, he continued, “[t]hose who have intimate knowledge of China and its political system had reasons to worry.” He explained that “[i]n many ways, the deal was almost made to be broken, because it was based on three erroneous assumptions on the part of American officials.” In particular, “[t]he American trust that the Chinese government will honor its promises was misplaced, if not outright naïve.”
What Lesson, if Any?
American diplomats apparently went into this negotiation naïvely hoping for a “win-win” arrangement, supposedly based on the Chinese Constitution. They let their hope overcome reason, ignoring the fact that the Chinese government has shown itself untrustworthy in abiding by its promises. In a country without rule of law, contracts and negotiations will always risk falling through. And as Jerry Cohen said on NPR, China is undergoing “a crisis of lawlessness.” Consequently, the deal that American diplomats thought they had negotiated so deftly has blown up in their faces. China has proven willing to lie to the other side’s negotiators, and then renege on the deal once China gets what it wants (in this case, to pry Chen away from American protection).
Chen did not want to leave China. He wanted a deal allowing him to live in freedom within China. But unfortunately, the Chinese government apparently considered a single blind legal advocate too much of a “threat” to tolerate, and that it was worth serious fall-out with the U.S. to eliminate this “threat”. Chen ultimately concluded that he could only find freedom outside of Chinese rule.
One of the most urgent and cutting questions in Chen Guangcheng’s case has been raised by the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT). ICT asks:
“…it appears that the Chinese from the outset were not willing to live up to the assurances that the U.S. said it had negotiated. This raises a fundamental question: if the Chinese cannot be trusted a deal [sic] on the fate of one individual, how trustworthy can they be on the agreements sought by the U.S. government within the Strategic and Economic Dialogue?”ICT asks an excellent question about the Chinese government's trustworthiness, one that should be addressed by all who advocate trusting the People’s Republic of China to abide by any agreement it might make.