Chen Guangcheng: One Blind Man in a Tale of Two Governments

In late April, 40-year old blind Chinese civil rights activist, Chen Guangcheng dramatically escaped house arrest and turned up at the US embassy in Beijing seeking refuge. After several twists and turns, it seems that a deal has been struck between Beijing and Washington that will allow the activist to leave China together with his family on the pretext of pursing higher studies. While the incident has probably not yet reached its denouement, it nevertheless provides a useful opportunity to reflect on the evolving Sino-US relationship.

The complexity of the relationship is best understood in the first deal that the two sides had reached on Chen that later fell through. Apparently, Chen – like his compatriot, artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei – would have been allowed to stay on in China and continue his legal work but under some constraints. These deals were seen by the Americans at least, as a way of gradually opening up China to greater acceptance of civil rights and freedoms.

In the event, the deal collapsed because Chen came to realize that he and his family would not escape retribution once international attention on the issue had died down. For Indians of course, such targeting of individual activists is all too familiar. Civil rights activists ranging from Binayak Sen to those calling various state governments to account under the provisions of the Right to Information Act, have been similarly targeted under false charges, or even killed for their carrying out their duties as citizens. Even the issue that first got Chen in the crosshairs of the authorities – namely, his campaign against forced sterilizations – is one familiar to Indians from the Emergency period.

And as in the case of Chen, it seems unlikely that local government authorities will ever be charged for their wrongdoings or if they are, then it probably would not have been possible if it were not for international attention.

Coming back to Sino-US relations, it is interesting to note the breadth of the American ambition to remake China in its own image. And contrary to the view of the US frequently trying to impose its vision of democracy in West Asia and elsewhere by force, this was as nuanced and sensitive an exercise as was possible.

When Chen left the US embassy following the first deal, he was accompanied by the US ambassador, Gary Locke. This was significant because it reflected the highest levels of American involvement in this issue. But just as important, Locke is Chinese-American and seeing both Locke and Chen in the same photograph signified both what Chinese could achieve in a democratic country – indeed, Locke’s appointment was intended to convey precisely this message – and what ordinary Chinese had to face in order to achieve democracy at home.

If in the case of China and Chinese-Americans, the thrust is on democracy as a political value, then in the case of Indians and Indian-Americans, the focus ought to surely be on democracy in cultural and social interactions. When Indians crow about the achievements of Indian-Americans like Bobby Jindal or Nikki Haley, let them not forget that the latter stand for very different values in personal and social relations from most Indians.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry noted that the Americans had “interfered in the domestic affairs of China, and the Chinese side will never accept it.” But not only did the US ‘interfere’ by accepting Chen at the embassy in the first place, it continues to remain involved in trying to ensure that Chen and his family can leave China safely, and the Chinese have to accept this ‘interference’ even if they term Chen’s eventual exit as part of his desire to “study abroad”.

Meanwhile, Chen’s advocacy against forced sterilization and abortions in China has attracted notice among conservative Christians in the US who form a core support base of the Republican Party. In the run-up to the US presidential elections later this year, a selective framing of the Chen issue could allow them to extend their domestic attacks on the Democratic Party’s pro-abortion values to an attack on Barack Obama’s China policy.

And this is the hard reality of a bilateral relationship that for all the protestations of independence of action by one or the other side is too closely intertwined politically, economically and militarily, and growing ever more so. Indeed, in this interdependence perhaps, is also the basis of long-term political stability in the relationship.

Originally published, Jabin T. Jacob, “One Blind Man in a Tale of Two Governments,” DNA, 14 May 2012, p.9. 

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