The U.S. Embassy was accused of harboring the “criminal who created this violence” and was warned of “the potentially harmful consequences for U.S.-China relations,” according to a June 11, 1989, cable from the embassy to the State Department.
In the wake of the recent tense and high-stakes diplomatic drama involving blind activist Chen Guangcheng and his family, it is worth recalling how that other tense and high-stakes diplomatic drama 23 years ago between Washington and Beijing was eventually diffused. It was resolved over subsequent weeks with a clever, sophisticated package assembled by then-President George H.W. Bush and his national security team and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and his advisers.
One bit of context related to both events: In a June 10, 1989, report, the State Department’s Intelligence and Research Bureau explained, “The current situation [takes place] within the context of the Chinese leadership crisis that had been broiling for two years and especially ‘the power struggle for the succession to Deng Xiaoping.’ ” The Chen Guangcheng situation is taking place at a similarly sensitive time when China is changing its top leadership.
As Henry Kissinger explained in his book “On China,” Fang was “a living symbol of our conflict with China over human rights.” Chen can be viewed the same way.
In 1989, like today, there was a public outcry in the United States.
Back then, as former head of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing, Bush appreciated “Chinese sensitivities about perceived foreign interference” but, according to Kissinger, at the same time as a politician “he also had an astute understanding of American domestic political realities.”
Bush wrote a private letter on June 21, 1989, to Deng, saying in part, “We cannot put Fang out of the embassy without some assurance he will not be in physical danger.” He offered a discreet settlement with China “quietly permitting departure through expulsion.” It took months and several U.S. negotiating delegations to settle the issue.
A key conversation took place, according to Kissinger, in November 1989, when during his one-on-one meeting with Deng, the Chinese leader unscrewed a microphone recording their conversation, and worked out an understanding whereby Fang would be allowed to leave for the United States without a confession, which Deng had wanted. In turn, Washington would not publicize his going into exile, nor would he be received by the president or given official status by any U.S. government organization.
Under the final package, concluded in June 1990, Fang left the U.S. Embassy after 13 months and the U.S. lifted Tiananmen Square sanctions on China and extended an invitation to Jiang Zemin, the new Communist Party leader, for an official visit.
As Kissinger put it, no U.S. president can ignore Americans’ concept of human rights, “but he must be careful to define them and be aware of the principle of unintended consequences. . . . How to define and how to establish the balance will determine the nature of America’s relationship to China and perhaps the peace of the world.”
There were similar, serious private discussions as the Chen situation evolved last week, particularly when the 40-year-old self-trained lawyer spent time in a Chinese hospital and changed his mind: He no longer wanted to remain in China; he wanted to travel to the United States on a student visa.
Obama administration critics, starting with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have criticized the handling of the case without knowing all the facts. China’s government-controlled Beijing Daily has editorialized that “Chen Guangcheng has become a tool and a pawn of the U.S. politicians to discredit China.”
But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wisely ended her time in China, between dealing with Chen and participating in a summit, looking at the broader issues. “We are trying to do something unprecedented — to write a new answer to the age-old question: What happens when an established power and rising power meet?” she told reporters, adding, “We see this as an opportunity, not a threat.” She also went out of her way to thank Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo “for the very constructive role that he has played.”
It was Dai who told reporters Friday that “Human rights issues should not disturb state-to-state relations, and they should not be used as an excuse to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.”
I’ve been told that the current key solution in handling the Chen situation emerged from private talks between Dai and Clinton. As history shows, U.S. and Chinese leaders share greater understandings in such private talks than they often appear to do speaking to their separate publics.
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.