Benedict Obama? The increasingly confusing story of Chen Guangcheng

For the non-living-under-a-rock population, here’s what happened in the Chen Guangcheng saga. The question now is whether the United States deliberately hung Chen out to try or if they instead just badly mismanaged the entire negotiating process with Chinese officials. Either way, things are not looking good now:

Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident lawyer at the heart of a diplomatic crisis between China and the United States, telephoned in to a Congressional hearing on Thursday to plead for help in leaving his country.

Via a cellphone held up to a microphone at the hearing, Mr. Chen, speaking in Chinese, said: “I want to come to the U.S. to rest. I have not had a rest in 10 years. I’m concerned most right now with the safety of my mother and brothers. I really want to know what’s going on with them.”

Mr. Chen, according to the English translation of his comments, also asked to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was in Beijing. “I hope I can get more help from her,” he said. “Also, I want to thank her face-to-face.”

The call, apparently made from Mr. Chen’s Beijing hospital room from which American officials have been barred, was another dramatic turn in a case that had for a short time looked like a deft achievement to secure Mr. Chen’s safety by American diplomats. That achievement has unraveled, leaving the Obama administration open to attacks from rights activists and Republicans that it had failed to adequately protect Mr. Chen after he left the sanctuary of the United States Embassy here on Wednesday.

There are many weird aspects to this case. First of all, American officials have been barred from the hospital, and yet Chen remains free to converse with as many media and political figures as he likes. Perhaps the Communist Party higher-ups are just biding their time until the media circus blows over, but this is still a slightly odd circumstance. Secondly, was the U.S. actually shocked by Chen’s quick reversal (first he wanted to stay in China, and now he wants to leave for the States with his family), or did American officials simply not care what happened after he left the embassy? Also, what was the point of arranging such an elaborate pickup of the dissident far from the embassy’s entrance, even going so far as to protect him from a Chinese security contingent, if they were just going to release him back to the authorities soon afterwards anyway? (Or was the entire “car chase” sequence part of an American image repair campaign after the Chen affair went terribly wrong?)

It seems impossible that President Obama and Hillary Clinton could have so badly miscalculated the resolve of the Chinese Communist Party to regain physical control of Chen, and yet it looks like that’s exactly what they did. I tend to agree with Robert Wright over at the Atlantic, who writes:

The Obama folks may be cynical, but they’re smart enough to have known that if Chen walked into a bait-and-switch, that would be a big problem not just for him but for them. It doesn’t make sense, even in Machiavellian terms, that they’d have wanted to seriously mislead him.

James Fallows, meanwhile, suggests remaining cautious:

Quite a lot about this situation is confusing and contradictory, to put it mildly. But I would caution readers against drawing an inference, from headlines like the ones above on US-based analyses rather than on-scene reports, that (a) it is clear that U.S. officials so clearly mis-handled, or coldly handled, this case, or (b) there was something much more clearly successful or satisfying that they could have done. It’s possible that both those things will prove to be true, and the Obama Administration and its representatives in Beijing will deserve criticism. But that is far from clear now — and I worry that a pileup of headlines of this sort can give an initial shape to the story that is hard to change, and that the complicated facts don’t support.

And lastly, the New York Review of Books (in an article to which Fallows links) proffers the idea that, in the end, it’s not up to the United States to change China’s pattern of human rights violations. In any case, here’s hoping the media spotlight stays bright for awhile until some sort of agreement can be hashed out.

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About Jay Pinho

Jay is a recent graduate of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) in New York. Previously he studied international security at L'Institut d'Études Politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris. He currently writes about politics, foreign affairs, and journalism and continues to make painstakingly slow progress in amateur photography.

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