Chen Guangcheng is coming to America. The Chinese activist whose escape from house arrest sparked a diplomatic crisis abruptly boarded a plane bound for Newark, N.J., early this morning.
Accompanied by his wife and two children, Chen left Beijing and is purportedly on his way to study law at New York University. His departure is an artful conclusion to an episode that tested U.S.-China relations, as NPR’s Frank Langfitt told Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon:
“This was a very clever way to get around an impasse between the U.S. and the Chinese government. The Chinese were furious that he got away from house arrest, and Chen did not want to go into exile. So a New York University professor came up with the idea — he said, ‘Why don’t you come study in New York?’ And the government, the Chinese government, was able to say ‘Sure there’s no real big problem here, it’s common for Chinese to go study in the U.S.’ And this provided a face-saving way out and paved the way for the departure today.”
Chen’s journey to the U.S. began last month when he escaped from house arrest and fled to the U.S. embassy in Beijing — just ahead of a high-profile visit from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The New York Times has the State Department’s official take on Chen’s exit:
“In a statement, U.S. officials obliquely praised the Chinese government for its cooperation in resolving what became a diplomatic headache for both countries. ‘We also express our appreciation for the manner in which we were able to resolve this matter and to support Mr. Chen’s desire to study in the U.S. and pursue his goals,’ Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said.”
“What’s quite good about this,” Langfitt says, “is these two countries, the United States and China, were able to work out a deal. And China, in a sense, gave up quite a bit — in the sense that this is a dissident who had humiliated them.”
It’s a happy ending that still leaves something to be desired. Chinese dissidents tend to become irrelevant as soon as they leave the country. Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch told The Guardian that by getting rid of Chen, the Chinese government has less incentive to investigate wrongdoing:
“This is a reflection of the fact that there is no room for human rights defenders in China. We don’t know if this will turn into a temporary stay or exile, but in either case, it begs the questions why someone like Chen Guangcheng cannot freely operate in China. What is it that stops the authorities from tolerating or even embracing someone like Chen?”
From a pragmatic perspective, Langfitt notes, the case “shows that neither side is going to let the human rights issue hijack the relationship — there’s simply too much at stake these days.”
“The truth, though, is if you follow Chinese and U.S. relations over the last couple of decades, human rights really hasn’t been a pivotal issue for a very long time — and this kind of shows that.”
What it also shows is how far China has yet to go in developing the rule of law, Langfitt adds.
“Leading up to this point, Chen had been jailed. He’d been beaten; he’d been under house arrest – all essentially because he challenged local authorities on illegal forced abortions. The central government didn’t really do anything about this, and so what you have here is the world’s second-largest economy — an increasingly important country, but with no rule of law. And the government can kind of do what it wants.”
Once he lands in the U.S., Chen will also be able to do what he wants. That may include another departure; Bloomberg reports he told Hong Kong Cable Television, “I don’t know when I’ll come back, but I’ll definitely come back.”