Past Event

The Fate of Chinese Dissident Chen Guangcheng: A Live Web Chat with Jeffrey Bader

Tensions between the United States and China are rising as the two nations struggle to find compromise over the future of prominent Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. Two weeks after Chen escaped from house arrest and sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, senior American and Chinese diplomats continue to negotiate, but may be close to an agreement allowing the activist and his family to travel to the U.S.

Will the crisis involving one of China’s most high-profile dissidents permanently damage U.S.-China relations? Did the Obama administration misstep in the negotiations to secure Chen’s safety, as some critics allege? On Wednesday, May 9, Brookings expert Jeffrey Bader answered your questions during a live web chat from 12:30PM to 1:00 PM with moderator Emily Howell of POLITICO.

12:29 Emily Howell: Hi everyone, let’s get started.

12:30 Comment From Roberto: Did the administration misstep when handling Chen’s case? Should he have been granted asylum the second he walked through the U.S. embassy’s doors? Or was this a difficult situation that the Obama administration was trying to make the best of?

12:33 Jeffrey Bader: The U.S. cannot grant asylum to a Chinese national on Chinese territory, so that was not an option. In any event, at the outset Chen was insistent that he did not wish to leave China, so the U.S. officials dealing with him had to respect that preference. He changed his mind after leaving the embassy, compelling U.S. officials to try to accommodate his wish to leave China. If he leaves, it will not be to seek asylum in the U.S., but to study here. All in all, I think U.S. officials did the best they could in a very difficult situation.

12:33 Comment From Anne: What’s next for Chen? Do you think it is likely that he will be given a student visa and allowed to study in the United States?

12:34 Jeffrey Bader: Anne, at the moment, the most likely outcome is for Chen to come to the U.S. on a student visa. Of course the Chinese government first has to issue him a passport. There is good reason to believe they will do that. If all goes well, he is likely to come to the U.S. with his wife and two children.

12:35 Comment From Donald: Do you think Chen’s case seriously damages U.S./China relations moving forward?

12:39 Jeffrey Bader: Donald, so far, it would appear that the episode has not significantly damaged the relationship. On the contrary, the main lesson we can take away is that the U.S.-China relationship is sufficiently resilient that it can withstand incidents of this kind. After all, the strategic and economic dialogue proceeded as planned, and Clinton and Geithner were received by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. The talks with their counterparts were on issues such as Iran, North Korea, Syria, the trade imbalance, the future of China’s economic reform policies, Chinese investment in the U.S., and other issues on which U.S.-China cooperation are critical. The talks did not deal with the Chen issue. So that suggests a desire by both sides to concentrate on the big issues while handling the Chen matter in a way that is politically acceptable in both countries.

That said, the Chinese clearly are very angry over the way in which Chen found his way into the U.S. embassy and have made strong statements about that. We could hear more from them on this, but I don’t think they want their irritation over that to affect the broad relationship.

12:39 Comment From Brandon: Shouldn’t we be standing up more vigorously for this man? What is this doing to our international reputation as defenders of human rights?

12:43 Jeffrey Bader: Brandon, the Administration stood up very vigorously for Chen. It is very rare that someone is given sanctuary in an American embassy. This is not normal, and under international and U.S. law, it is very unusual and indeed difficult to justify. It was only because of our commitment to this man’s rights that such a decision was made. The approach the Administration took in discussing the matter with the Chinese provided extraordinary protections for Chen and his family, difficult for any government to accept with regard to a citizen within its borders. And the Administration did so at a time when the Secretaries of State and Treasury were about to arrive for important talks that this matter could have derailed. I believe this demonstrates a substantial commitment to human rights and Chen’s rights, which very few if any other countries would have provided in such a case.

12:43 Comment From Guest: All this vilification of Chen in the Chinese state media — is that merely for domestic propaganda purposes — or does it carry ominous. portent for Chen’s family?

12:45 Jeffrey Bader: So far, Chinese media have been fairly quiet in talking about Chen since this episode began, though they have been sharply critical of the U.S. embassy. My hope is that Chen, his wife, and two children will be allowed to leave. I have not seen anything in the media to suggest that outcome is off track.

12:45 Comment From Ed, DC: How aware are average Chinese citizens of Chen’s case. It’s made international headlines, but I have a feeling the government has kept a tight lid on it internally.

12:47 Jeffrey Bader: Ed, Chen was certainly not a household name in China before this episode. There has been virtually no coverage in the Chinese media, and discussion on the internet has been blocked. But by now many millions of Chinese have found ways to read about the case. They are quite good at doing work-arounds in the face of censorship.

12:47 Comment From Matthew, R: Once Chen is in the United States, do you see him asking for permanent asylum? Or do you believe his claims that he will want to return eventually?

12:48 Jeffrey Bader: Matthew, hard to say. He continues to say he wants to return him, and that doubtless is his current view. Once he arrives here, he will encounter many Chinese, including dissidents, who have left China, and his views could evolve. But at this point, the safest conclusion is that he is not interested in asylum.

12:49 Comment From Mona: The Chinese government has asked the United States to apologize for its “interference” in Chen’s case. Do you see this happening? Or did China have to ask to save face?

12:52 Jeffrey Bader: Mona, I am fairly certain the U.S. will not apologize. China’s demand that the U.S. do so was to be expected, since in their view we violated Chinese and international law. What both China and the U.S. wish to do is not so much to re-adjudicate this case as to ensure that it does not become a model for future attempts to gain asylum at the U.S. embassy. That is not the function of embassies, and repetition would complicate our relationship in ways that this episode has not done.

12:53 Comment From Cheri: Do you think Chen’s case reveals serious cracks in the Communist government’s armor? I’ve heard some say his case is spreading like wildfire on social media sites in China.

12:54 Jeffrey Bader: Cheri, in terms of cracks in the system, the recent purge of Bo Xilai was a much more significant development in what it says about what is going on in China. He was a major figure likely destined for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee that runs China. Now he is under investigation, as are some people associated with him, and the shape of the leadership to be selected this fall will change as a consequence.

12:55 Comment From Brandon:
Gov. Romney has been critical of President Obama for not standing up for Chen’s human rights. Do you think this criticism is valid? Or merely a campaign play?
12:57 Jeffrey Bader: Brandon, as a general matter, it is not a good practice for prominent U.S. political figures to criticize the U.S. government in the midst of a sensitive negotiation abroad where lives are at stake. I believe the outcome of this case will either justify or undercut assessments of the Administration’s handling of the case. At this stage, I would predict that the Administration’s handling will be justified.

12:58 Comment From Ron: Is China replacing the United States as the world’s leading military and economic power?

1:02 Jeffrey Bader: Ron, while China has been growing very rapidly, its per capita GDP is still only about 10-15% of America’s. Our military spending is 3 or 4 times China’s by the most conservative estimates. China’s economic growth is likely to slow in the next few years, probably to 7.5 to 8% as it faces huge challenges on how its state-owned enterprises adapt to a period of rising wages and shrinking markets abroad. China’s military is not in a position to project power significantly beyond the western Pacific. So the common belief that China is replacing the U.S. is at worst wildly premature and probably wrong in any event. China’s leaders have been insistent that they do not seek to displace or challenge the U.S. and say that they recognize that their relationship with the U.S. is the single most important one for China. So I am relatively confident about this, though we should not make assumptions based on the current situation or straight-line analyses.

1:02 Emily Howell: Thanks for the questions everyone!

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