Jerome A. Cohen is co-director of New York University’s US-Asia Law Institute and an adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Amid so much uncertainty over the fate of human rights advocate Chen Guangcheng and his family, the role that luck played in Chen’s saga is among the things that stand out.
I spoke with Chen at length last Monday and Tuesday at his request. Before persecution of him began, we had cooperated for several years in legal research and training. If Chen had been allowed to talk to his Chinese friends before leaving the U.S. Embassy last Wednesday, as he says he requested, the heroic law professor Teng Biao and other rights activists who have endured abuse from security thugs would have told Chen the same things they said after his American escorts left him at a Beijing hospital: Don’t give up the safety of the embassy, even if it means further separation from your family and indefinite isolation. Had U.S. officials put Chen in touch with Rep. Chris Smith, as Chen requested Tuesday, Smith undoubtedly would have given the same advice.
And had those requests been honored, today’s optimistic prospects would not exist. Chen would not be reunited with his loved ones, nor would his family be preparing to leave China for a period of study and academic exchange in the United States. And U.S.-China relations would have grown increasingly hostile in the politically volatile struggle over his fate.
If the capable and dynamic American diplomats who proposed the original imaginative solution to the crisis had not been so exhausted from six days of round-the-clock negotiations, they might have left an authoritative colleague at the hospital with Chen — and that might have bolstered his resolve to stay in China, study law and continue striving to protect the rights of disabled and persecuted Chinese.
Ironically, if Chinese officials at the hospital had not allowed Chen many phone calls with Teng and other friends, he might have stuck with the original plan. That’s especially likely because, despite recent torture by police, his gallant wife, Yuan Weijing, still wanted the family to stay in China — as she told him by phone before he left the embassy.
Similarly, if Chinese officials had not permitted foreign media to telephone Chen, he would not have been able to immediately tell the world that he had changed his mind before American officials awakened from their much-needed sleep and had a chance to dissuade him.
I am no Dr. Pangloss who believes that every diplomatic debacle is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Yet, look how things have turned out! Just days ago the Beijing government was so angry at the United States and at Chen that some officials wanted him to suffer another form of incommunicado detention by keeping him holed up, blind and alone, in our embassy for years. Remember Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty’s 15 years in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, or the 13 months professor Fang Lizhi and his wife spent at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after seeking shelter following the Tiananmen Square massacre? Some Chinese officials threatened to indict Chen for treason for seeking foreign diplomatic shelter from the lawless brutality inflicted on him and his family since 2005.
Even Chinese legal experts, who normally are sensitive to the need to improve their country’s human rights record, had to have been concerned that this apparent attempt to gain political asylum would help establish an exception to prevailing international law, which frowns upon embassy asylum. Hence, China’s public demand for a U.S. apology for the perceived violation of its territorial jurisdiction.
Those who have criticized the impressive American effort to take advantage of Chinese officials’ eagerness to resolve this incident before the Strategic and Economic Dialogue convened last week may not understand that as of Wednesday afternoon, Communist Party leaders were nowhere near ready to allow Chen’s family to leave the country.
By Friday afternoon, however, thanks to an unexpected concatenation of events, things had changed. A spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who previously had condemned the United States taking a Chinese citizen into its embassy “by abnormal means,” gave a succinct, vitriol-free answer to an obviously arranged question about whether Chen might study abroad. Like any other Chinese citizen, he said, Chen could apply to study abroad. That was the signal that a solution had been reached — not by letting Chen rot indefinitely in the U.S. Embassy nor by subjecting him to the considerable risks of staying active in China, as the two governments had initially agreed. No, Chen’s family was granted an opportunity that had previously been off the table.
The spokesman even used language Chen had used in our long talks earlier in the week. “I just want the rights of an ordinary Chinese citizen,” he told me over and over. I and countless others hope that Chen’s luck will last and that he will soon be granted one of those rights, even if he didn’t initially prefer to exercise it: the right to leave his country. Many of those who have helped him and are now in grave danger may wish that they could have the same right.
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