HONG KONG — After days of diplomatic tumult triggered by the plight of Chen Guangcheng, the dissident lawyer who fled house arrest to find temporary sanctuary at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China and the United States are now in an uncomfortable but familiar place — struggling to contain an unforeseen upheaval that, like many others since Richard Nixon met Mao Zedong in 1972, has soured but is not expected to shatter a relationship each country considers too important to fail.
When Hillary Rodham Clinton first traveled to Asia as secretary of state three years ago, she indicated that she looked forward to a new era of cooperation with China undisturbed by stale debates about jailed dissidents, Tibetan monks and other reported victims of persecution.
The US and China have forged the outline of a deal to send Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng abroad and end the diplomatic standoff that's dominated the news during Secretary of State Clinton's visit to Beijing.
Hours after blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. embassy on Wednesday, a U.S.-brokered deal to guarantee his safety appeared to unravel. A timeline of events.
“We pretty much know what they are going to say” on human rights, Clinton said. “We have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can’t interfere” with vital security and economic issues.
But just as the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 froze President George H.W. Bush’s plans for Sino-American comity, the travails of Chen, the blind lawyer, have now punctured what human rights campaigners deride as the Obama administration’s “illusions” about China’s ruling Communist Party.
“This is a moment of truth,” said Bob Fu, a Chinese exile who heads ChinaAid, a Texas-based Christian group that helped engineer Chen’s escape on April 22 from house arrest in Shandong province.
“China is not trustworthy and cannot keep its promises from one day to the next,” Fu added, referring to complaints that Chinese authorities have already reneged on assurances that Chen would be left in peace and allowed unfettered visits by American diplomats once he left the U.S. Embassy.
U.S. diplomats have been barred since Thursday from visiting Chen in the hospital, although an embassy doctor was able to see him Friday. Chinese security agents have thronged the ward where he is being treated for a broken foot suffered during his escape and a previous stomach ailment. Chen, who originally insisted he did not want to leave China, now says he wants to fly to the United States, preferably with Clinton, who was in Beijing for an annual round of high-level strategic and economic talks and was due to leave Saturday.
China — the United States’ biggest creditor, with holdings of Treasury bonds worth about $1.2 trillion — also appears to feel let down. It angrily accused the United States of violating unspecified international laws and interfering in China’s internal affairs by granting Chen entry “via abnormal means” to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. It also demanded an apology, a demand that U.S. officials have rejected but which is part of what, over the years, has become a familiar ritual of Sino-U.S. crises. China also demanded — and didn’t get — an apology after one of its military jets collided with a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane off the coast of southern China in 2001, an incident that badly dented, but didn’t upend, relations.