Chinese microblogs and Web sites have frothed with debate in recent days over whether Chen is a tragic hero or a foolish traitor. Much of it is coded, because Chen’s name is banned for online searches, as is the phrase “left of his own volition,” the official description of Chen’s departure Wednesday from the U.S. Embassy.
The Obama administration is also under pressure, with speakers at a congressional hearing on Chen’s ordeal Thursday demanding a wholesale rethinking of relations with China.
“America missed an opportunity in Tiananmen. Will this administration, too, fail to seize a historic moment?” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) at the emergency meeting of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.Wolf said he would request to see “all cable traffic, classified or otherwise,” relating to negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials on Chen’s fate.
Others demanded that human rights be accorded the same central place in Sino-American diplomacy as they were in the United States’ discussions with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Soviet parallels are deeply alarming to Chinese leaders, who have closely studied the collapse of the Soviet Communist Party and are determined to avoid going the same way. One key lesson they have drawn is that China must avoid getting locked into formal discussions on human rights, as Soviet officials did after the signing of the so-called Helsinki Accords in 1975. Soviet dissidents used the accords to pry concessions from the party and rally foreign support.
The Soviet experience also taught Chinese party leaders that the most effective way to deal with troublesome dissidents is to send them abroad, a solution pioneered by Moscow in 1974 when it exiled Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of “The Gulag Archipelago.”Solzhenitsyn, bundled onto a plane to Germany against his will, spent much of the next 20 years as a virtual recluse in Vermont.
China’s own exiled dissidents have mostly faded into obscurity, and Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington, noted that it would be “very risky” for China to let Chen remain. “It’s like a time bomb to let him stay,” he said. “Previously they preferred to send such dissidents abroad, where they often become marginalized.”
Zhu Feng, deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, said he didn’t expect any serious long-term damage from the crisis triggered by Chen.