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China and U.S. face choices in Chen case, none perfect

May 1, 2012 |  3:46 pm


No resolution of the diplomatic challenges facing the United States and China over what happens to blind dissident Chen Guangcheng is likely to both ease Chinese embarrassment and cast the Obama administration as a staunch defender of human rights, experts say.

When Chen escaped house arrest recently and turned up in Beijing seeking the protection of U.S. diplomats, he may have signaled fatigue in his fight against human rights abuses committed by Chinese authorities imposing the one-child policy through forced abortions and sterilizations.

Chen, 41, posted a video on YouTube last week, calling on Premier Wen Jiabao to hold local authorities in his home province of Shandong accountable for beatings and harassment inflicted on his family and supporters for his outspoken criticism of the regime.

The dissident lawyer's escape has exposed China to renewed scrutiny at a time when the country's politicians are jockeying for power ahead of a major Communist Party leadership transfer this year.

Veteran diplomats, human rights advocates and analysts of Sino-U.S. relations predict Chen will probably be compelled to accept asylum in the United States. Such a move could spare the Beijing leadership the chagrin of another high-profile standoff with Washington and the U.S. administration from criticism that it is interfering in Chinese domestic affairs.

"I don’t think there is any solution other than to give him exile in the United States, to get him away from China," said Lowell Dittmer, a political science professor and editor of UC Berkeley's Asian Survey. "It would be difficult to guarantee he could have the freedom to do what he wants to do, although he apparently wants to stay and wants us to intercede."

Reliable assurances of better treatment are highly unlikely when Chinese politicians are gingerly navigating the path to top positions of power as the party prepares to make its once-in-a-decade leadership change, and with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton winging her way to Beijing with Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner for discussions on the economy and regional security, said Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Chen could leave for the United States under the guise of getting medical treatment and quietly be reunited with his wife and daughter at a later date, said Paal.

"But this is a less attractive option for him. He knows that people in these positions tend to become marginalized," said Paal, who served as senior director for Asian affairs under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Paal said a third country could grant Chen asylum, but would be unlikely to provide him any better platform for pressing his rights agenda than could the United States. Or Chen could take permanent refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, said Paal, recalling the 15-year stay at Washington's Budapest embassy for Cardinal Josef Mindszenty after the failed anti-Communist Hungarian Revolution in 1956.

"That's an outcome nobody would want," said Paal.

In New York, exiled Tiananmen Square-era activist Tang Baiqiao said he had been told by prominent dissidents that a deal was already on the table in Beijing that would send Chen to the United States, ostensibly for medical treatment. That would allow China to save face while removing a respected voice of dissent from the sensitive domestic political environment, and would sidestep the U.S. stated policy that it doesn't accept asylum applications from Chinese dissidents, said Tang. But Chen is resisting the offer, hoping to secure more latitude for his campaign against reproductive abuses inflicted by the strict one-child policy.

Clinton has done well to keep the unspoken standoff from erupting into a public crisis for reform-minded Beijing officials such as Premier Wen, say the analysts. But she will be under intense pressure to push for a resolution that advances Chen's causes, they add, especially with figures on the left and right watching her handling of the Chen affair as a test of the Obama administration's commitment to human rights.

"The U.S. government has a moral obligation to ensure that Chen Guangcheng, his family and any who aided his Houdini-like escape from house arrest are either granted asylum in the United States or are not mistreated if any of them choose to stay in China," said Frank Jannuzi of the Washington office of Amnesty International.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called on the administration to "take every measure to ensure that Chen and his family members are protected from further persecution."

Clinton and Geithner begin their high-profile meetings with Chinese counterparts Thursday, and officials on both sides probably hope to have Chen's fate quietly decided by then, said Dittmer. But the Chen controversy could be put aside for resolution after the spotlight trained on the negotiations dims and diplomats can resolve the dilemma behind the scenes, he said.

Andrew Scobell, a political scientist and scholar of Chinese affairs at RAND Corp., predicted resolving the Chen matter could drag on for months, perhaps even into the autumn when the Communist Party convenes its congress to select the next generation of leaders.

Chen may not have made up his mind yet on what he wants to do, said Scobell.

"He either stays and continues to endure the kind of oppression and torture that he has to date," Scobell said, "or he leaves and largely becomes irrelevant to what is happening in China."


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-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles and Barbara Demick in New York

Photo: Pedestrians make their way past the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Tuesday. Blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng is said to be taking refuge in the heavily fortified compound.  Vincent Thian / Associated Press