The Chen debacle

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  • As the Chen Guangcheng saga gets stranger and stranger, it becomes a major embarrassment for #Obama

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  • What seemed like a coup by #US diplomats has become the biggest circus sideshow in Sino-American relations since 1989

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  • The Chen debacle has Cool Hand Luke syndrome, where “what we have here is a failure to communicate.”

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The Chen Guangcheng saga gets stranger and stranger, but also is becoming a major diplomatic embarrassment for the Obama administration. What was already a confusing tale of “he said, she said” moved into the realm of near-parody this afternoon, when Chen himself called his U.S. supporter and activist Bob Fu during a congressional hearing, was put on speaker phone, and directly asked to be let out of China. What has particularly spun the case out of control is the growing assertion by many that U.S. officials relayed threats by Beijing toward Chen’s wife to the blind activist, thereby forcing him to accept a deal to leave the U.S. Embassy and remain in China. Within 48 hours of a supposed deal to ensure Chen’s safety in the country, the lawyer’s friends began spreading the word that he had feared for his wife’s life and agreed to leave the embassy, but now wanted to flee the country. 

What seemed like a coup by U.S. diplomats has instead become the biggest circus sideshow in Sino-American relations since 1989, when the Chinese massacred hundreds (possibly thousands) of college students demonstrating for freedom in Tiananmen Square, and famed dissident Fang Lizhi took refuge in the U.S. Embassy. Back then, Ambassador James R. Lilley succored Fang for a year before Chinese authorities agreed to let him live in exile in the United States. Given the doubts about who said what to whom, it is imperative that the Obama administration dispel rumors that it may have, even unknowingly, passed official threats to Chen, thereby causing him to take the path of least resistance for both governments (though not, it seems, for himself). Knowing personally some of the diplomats involved in the case, I can only say that they are extraordinarily hard-working public servants who truly desire to do the right thing. But it seems that this is a classic case of Cool Hand Luke syndrome, where “what we have here is a failure to communicate.”

This raises serious questions about how close U.S. and Chinese officials are to creating a working relationship that can deal effectively with crisis. Daily Sino-American ties seem to work fairly smoothly, even if there is serious dissatisfaction on both sides over issues such as currency, general human rights, and of course security. But the test of a relationship is how well it puts into place mechanisms to effectively deal with disagreements and crises. Given the areas on which Washington and Beijing significantly disagree, and the large number of small confrontations in the past, we do not seem to be maturing this most vital of relationships. Unlike during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the United States ultmately came to a basic understanding of how to manage crises so that they did not spiral out of control, the U.S. and China are light-years away from reaching that level of stability. 

This should be of great concern to those who see the United States and China on increasingly divergent courses, which, perhaps paradoxically, increases the chance for misunderstanding and mano-a-mano stand-offs like the one now occuring over Chen. Those who think that Chen’s saga is a one-time event that was unforeseen are likely to be unpleasantly surprised.

Michael Auslin is a Resident Scholar at AEI.

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