China's Pyrrhic Victory Over Dissident Leaves Deep Rooted Corruption Intact
Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell with Chen Guangcheng at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China, on May 1, 2012.
Photo Credit: US State Department/Wikimedia Commons
HONG KONG - Blind activist Chen Guangcheng is safely ensconced in New York, and both Washington and Beijing are feeling pretty good about this conclusion to their prolonged, unusually nimble diplomatic dance over Chen's fate.
The United States did not use Chen's flight - last month to the US embassy in Beijing and over the weekend to a future as a research fellow at New York University's School of Law - as a platform to berate the Chinese leadership for its woeful human-rights record.
Neither did any Chinese diplomat seize upon the Chen drama to rail against American meddling in China's internal affairs. Yes, a few angry rumblings emanated from state media, but they were solely intended for domestic consumption.
On the whole, in very charged diplomatic circumstances that could easily have led to a serious strain in relations, both sides reacted with remarkable restraint, flexibility and collaboration.
Analysts have been quick to hail the Chen case as an example of the new maturity and sophistication in Sino-US relations.
Maybe so, but this should not hide that the case has been an international embarrassment for Beijing and that Chinese leaders have only acceded to Chen's request to study in the US so as to park that embarrassment more than 1,100 kilometers away on foreign soil.
Chen, 40, will, at least for now, be swathed in care and adulation in his new home; despite his international renown, however, he is little known in China, and Chinese leaders aim to keep it that way.
Soon enough the publicity, protest and Internet chatter about Chen will die away, and he will be just another Chinese dissident abroad making pronouncements never heard by or reported to his own people.
If that's regarded as a winning outcome in Beijing, then it is a Pyrrhic victory that does nothing to address the deeply rooted and widespread problem of corruption that Chen has spent the last several years of his life fighting against.
There will be more Chens - many more - and the leadership cannot, with the quiet assistance of the US government, shunt them all off to law school in New York or anywhere else.
Subtle diplomatic dances and not-so-subtle Chinese economic clout aside, what has been done to Chen and his family - and to countless others in China - is brazenly illegal, not to mention unconscionable. For his efforts to make his country a safer and more just society, the self-taught "barefoot lawyer" from northeastern Shandong province had been rewarded with torture and a prison cell.
No one is suggesting that President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao or others in the top echelon of the Communist Party's leadership structure ordered or approved of this treatment. Indeed, they are surely deeply embarrassed by it and would like such shameful, extra-legal punishments to stop.
However, notwithstanding much anti-corruption rhetoric, the Hu-Wen leadership team has been largely ineffective during its 10 years in power in reducing the rampant graft and abuse of power at the local level of Chinese politics.
Chen, a native of the small village of Dongshigu, first became a thorn in the side of local authorities when he journeyed to Beijing in 1994 to petition the central government to lift taxes that had been wrongly levied on his family, which under law was exempt from taxation because of Chen's disability.
After his petition was granted, Chen went about helping other families with disabled members who had also been taxed.
Several years later, buoyed by the success of his tax appeal, Chen launched a campaign to stop a paper mill from dumping toxic chemicals in a stream near his village.
Then, in 2005, after Chen exposed at least 7,000 forced abortions and sterilizations in the Shandong city of Linyi, the local authorities responsible for this brutal edict to force compliance with China's one-child policy had seen enough.
Chen was seized later that year on a street in Beijing and transported back to Shandong, where, in 2006, he was convicted and jailed for "organizing a crowd to disrupt traffic" and "damaging public property."
Until his dramatic April 20 escape over a wall that security officials had constructed around his house, Chen had been under house arrest in Dongshigu since his release from prison in 2010. He says that he and his wife have been severely beaten over the past year.
Following his daring getaway, Chen wound up, with the help of a network of friends, at the US embassy in Beijing, which sheltered him for six days while American and Chinese officials negotiated his fate.
He has posted three demands to the Chinese government on YouTube: That the local officials who allegedly assaulted him are prosecuted, that his family's safety is guaranteed and that corruption is seriously addressed as a national problem.
On May 2, American officials announced that a deal had been struck to allow Chen to receive hospital care in Beijing for a broken foot and other minor injuries sustained during his escape and then to remain in China as a free man.
After being escorted to a Beijing hospital by US ambassador Gary Locke himself, however, Chen - who, according to Locke, had earlier enthusiastically agreed to the deal - changed his mind and asked that he and his family be flown to the US.
Chen attributed his change of heart to threats he said had been made against his family by local officials in Shandong. Chen claims that officials there warned they would beat his wife, Yuan Weijing, if he did not leave the US embassy and that his elder brother, Chen Guangfu, who helped him escape, has already been tortured.
In another frightening development, Chen Guangfu's 33-year-old son, Chen Kegui, has been charged with "intentional homicide" for an alleged knife attack on officials who entered his home following his uncle's escape.
Understandably, Chen got cold feet, and diplomats were forced to go back to the drawing board to salvage some sort of face-saving exit for all parties.
After more than two weeks of behind-the-scenes talks, Chen, his wife and two children flew out of Beijing for New York and a new life on Saturday.
New York University offered Chen a research fellowship in law, the US government gave him a visa and Beijing - finally - provided the necessary passports for him and his family.
It is telling, however, that those passports were not issued until after the family arrived at Beijing Capital International Airport, having received notice of their imminent departure only hours before.
Until the very end, Chinese leaders did their level best to minimize domestic publicity and political fallout from the Chen fiasco and, arguably, they did an excellent job.
The certainly didn't want Chen hanging around Beijing taking phone calls from foreign reporters as the 23rd anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square approaches.
Nor did they want him there in the run-up to the next party congress, scheduled for this autumn, when a new generation of leaders will be chosen.
It's better to let Chen go to New York and become a darling of the Western media - until, that is, his newfound friends get bored and move on to another topic.
Then he will be just another homesick dissident in the Chinese diaspora.
Meanwhile, back in China, the beat goes on.