WASHINGTON -- A tentative deal to allow activist Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng to study in the United States serves as a face-saving measure for all involved: Washington can say it safeguarded human rights, Beijing can point to its cooperative diplomacy and Chen gets a new start in America.
After a week of hectic back-and-forth negotiations and Chen's own flip-flop on staying in China, May 4 announcements by U.S. and Chinese officials pointed to a positive end for a standoff that embarrassed the Chinese government by shining a light on its human rights record and put President Barack Obama in a tight spot while campaigning for re-election.
Several steps remain before Chen can take up an academic fellowship in the U.S. But the speed with which a near-calamity was resolved illustrates the maturing partnership between the world's biggest powers, after years of stumbling over lesser disputes.
"It is a testament to how far we've come in building a strong and resilient relationship and being able to have very candid open discussions about issues where there is disagreement, without it endangering the entire range of significant matters that we are working on together,'' Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said May 4 in Beijing.
Chen, a blind, self-taught lawyer, has emerged as a symbol of the Chinese civil rights movement after exposing forced abortions and sterilizations as part of China's one-child policy and then enduring almost seven years of prison and house arrest. His dramatic, nighttime escape last week from local authorities into the halls of the U.S. Embassy, just before Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner were to arrive for unrelated meetings, had all the ingredients of a diplomatic fiasco.
The escape forced the Obama administration to balance its defense of an internationally renowned human rights defender against its courting of the Chinese to help advance the global economic recovery and deal with North Korea and Iran.
It presented tough choices, too, for Beijing, whose violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square 23 years ago is the portrait of its human rights behavior retained by much of the world. Chinese leaders still are extremely concerned about internal security and chafe at any foreign criticism of the nation's domestic affairs. At the same time, China has become increasingly conscious of its global image.
Somehow the worst was avoided this time. Eschewing the public grandstanding that has long prompted the Chinese to dig in their heels, U.S. officials worked behind the scenes, first to secure a deal that saw Chen leave the embassy on May 2 to be reunited with his family and receive hospital care. Clinton avoided shaming China publicly. She issued one written statement but said nothing else.
When on May 2 Chen backed out of the deal and demanded to leave China, officials from both sides hammered out a second compromise within 48 hours. The understanding came even as Clinton and Geithner were holding sensitive talks with the Chinese on issues such as currency, trade and territorial claims in the resource-rich South China Sea.
When she finally spoke, Clinton was able to deliver positive news.
"Over the course of the day, progress has been made to help him have the future that he wants," she told reporters after the strategic talks. But she also sought to drive home Washington's message that the cause of human rights was not thrown aside. She said the administration would continue to engage China's government at the highest levels and put "these concerns at the heart of our diplomacy."
"This is not just about well-known activists," Clinton said. "It's about the human rights and aspirations of more than a billion people here in China and billions more around the world. And it's about the future of this great nation and all nations."
China played its part by not letting the dispute sour talks with the U.S. across the board, and by tamping down the nationalist fervor that has accompanied previous public spats. China's top diplomat, Dai Bingguo, called the week's broader meeting a "tremendous" success, and its final day was accompanied by the breakthrough on Chen's future. The Chinese Foreign Ministry soberly announced that he could leave the country with his wife and two children.
The arrangement is incomplete and may not satisfy Obama's critics.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney assailed Obama on May 3 over the terms of the first deal, which would have allowed Chen and his family to relocate in China while he attended a Chinese law school.
"If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom and it's a day of shame for the Obama administration," Romney said, campaigning in Virginia.
Republicans in Congress weighed in, too, saying May 4 they would hold a hearing and demand all State Department cable traffic concerning Chen.
And the president was not shielded from criticism on the left from a human rights community that has been one of his core constituencies.
Frank Jannuzi of Amnesty International voiced concern on May 4 about possible "retributive actions" in China against Chen's extended family and supporters. The fates of Chen's missing elder brother and nephew are unknown, as is that of the woman who helped him escape, leaving the administration vulnerable to the charge that it has abandoned these people.
For China, Chen's actions presented a new test of its ability to work with its on-and-off adversary Washington while dealing with Communist Party critics at home who are increasingly speaking out, often online.
Giving in to Washington would have angered the nationalists. An overly harsh response might have elevated Chen further in the eyes of dissidents, emboldening their challenge to the party's grip on power. Either way, a lengthy, messy affair would have done little to bolster China's image at a time it is spending big to appear as a less scary, more accessible power with cultural influence alongside its economic heft.
"The sides have handled it in a practical way," said Peking University international relations expert Zhu Feng. She said human rights will remain contentious but neither side is letting any single issue dominate the discussion.
The analysis echoes American officials, who have praised China for learning to compartmentalize its disputes with the U.S. so that progress can occur on separate issues. Underscoring that ability, China's defense minister plans to visit the Pentagon next week for the first time in nine years despite the Chen episode and lingering tensions over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
The symbolic elements of the U.S.-Chinese deal were also important. Instead of spiriting Chen out of the country on Clinton's plane, as some Chinese dissidents demanded, the Chinese government said he could go abroad under normal procedures. The declaration sought to show that Beijing, not Washington, was in control.
Chen looks set to get what he wants. He has pleaded with international media and U.S. lawmakers for sanctuary in the United States, repeating since leaving the embassy that he is unsafe as long as he remains in China. But to get his wish, Chen may have to apply for a passport from his home county, where authorities have beaten him and his family for their activism.
Asked about the potential pitfall, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said he had no information. And U.S. officials also could not say what guarantees were in place to ensure Chen can return if he wishes. Several Chinese dissidents have left for the U.S., only to have their passports revoked.
Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University who advised Chen, said he hoped Chen could make it to the U.S. by midyear. He said there is an open invitation at his school, but he acknowledged that Chen was now a man in demand.
"He may have lot of other alternatives," Cohen said.
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