The U.S. media’s flea-like attention span has left Chen Guangcheng, pushing him off the front pages and out of the news broadcasts over the last couple of days. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left China; Chen has not as yet.
Reports suggest that Chinese authorities are moving ahead with his paperwork so he can “study for a few months” in the United States. In keeping with their negligent negotiations, U.S. officials have not been able to meet with Chen at a Beijing hospital. Human rights activists in the United States remain optimistic that Chen will be able to leave sooner or later, but questions remain about whether his family and friends who assisted him will face retribution.
Meanwhile, as if to emphasize just who is in charge and its power to squash the free flow of information, the Chinese government expelled the well-regarded journalist Melissa Chan, who was working for the English-language arm of al-Jazeera. She is a U.S. citizen.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, or FCCC, protested the expulsion, describing it as “the most extreme example of a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents.” . . .
The incident marked China’s first expulsion of a foreign journalist in 14 years, although many have been threatened with expulsion and others have had long delays getting visas approved. Most recently, police in Beijing last week threatened to revoke the visas of a dozen foreign reporters for trying to enter the hospital where blind activist Chen Guangcheng is now confined.
The State Department has not responded to repeated inquiries as to whether this issue was raised with Chinese officials and whether the U.S. government perceives this as the beginning of a post-Chen crackdown.
So what do we learn from all this? The most important lesson for Chinese dissidents surely must be not to rely on U.S. officials for a thorough and deliberate negotiation on your behalf. In this case, Chen was aided, once the American debacle unfolded, by international human rights activists and media, who helped create the firestorm that hopefully will spring Chen from his captivity.
As for President Obama’s China policy, former ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton writes: “Our halting, confused and so far inconclusive diplomacy has increased China’s determination to exploit our perceived weaknesses across the broader relationship. Beijing’s conclusion is that America is unwilling or unable to stand firm on its core values and interests.”
He observes, “At a time of potentially enormous upheaval within China, America’s current foreign-policy leaders had no strategy to advance our interests and support those of like mind inside China. Instead, we find ourselves more vulnerable to China and other present and potential adversaries exploiting our weaknesses and inattention.”
The perception that we rushed the Chen negotiations and were desperate that Sino-U.S. talks would proceed without a glitch is shared by a number of foreign policy analysts. Clyde Prestowitz notes that the United States got precious little from the had-to-be-there-can’t-delay talks:
Perhaps out of gratitude and certainly to prove to themselves that it had all been worth the effort, the U.S. team then proceeded to present the Dialogue as an outstanding success — one obviously worth the ambiguity with Chen. . . .
Clinton could not repress a telling burst of clichés. “Our countries,” she said, “have become thoroughly, inescapably interdependent.” And, “the United States believes that a thriving China is good for America, and a thriving America is good for China.”
In fact, as Prestowitz points out “none of the agreements to consider doing various things are at all binding on Beijing, or the United States for that matter.”
Meanwhile, other than vague promises to consider increasing Chinese consumption and opening up China’s economy slightly to outside investors (“foreign financial firms will now be allowed to increase their stake in Chinese firms to a maximum of 49 percent from the current 33 percent”) the basics of China’s economy remain unchanged. There was no agreement on currency evaluation, and “it is clear to market players that if they want to sell in China they will need to produce in China because of both overt and covert Buy China policies and attitudes.”
So China gets to keep doing what it wants. As with the talks about Chen, the Clinton performance can be characterized as “feckless,” Prestowitz says. “Not only have our ‘top diplomats’ led by Clinton given us a feckless performance in Beijing. They are leading to nowhere in particular. They are captives of the status quo, of slogans and shibboleths and the march of events. No one is thinking. They’re all too busy doing Dialogues.” And for this we rushed Chen out of the embassy, failed to secure access to him and are left to hope that Chen, his family and friends don’t face reprisals. Unfortunately, Melissa Chan won’t be there to tell us how it turns out.