Chen Case Highlights Delicate Nature of Human Rights in US-Sino Relations

In this photo released by the US Embassy Beijing Press Office, blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng makes a phone call as he is accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke on the way to a hospital in Beijing, May 2, 2012.
In this photo released by the US Embassy Beijing Press Office, blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng makes a phone call as he is accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke on the way to a hospital in Beijing, May 2, 2012.

So where does the Chen Guangcheng case leave U.S./China relations and Washington's role as a champion of human rights?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the agreement ending Chen's six-day stay at the U.S. embassy in Beijing "reflected his choices and our values."

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin, says Washington must apologize for what Beijing considers interfering in Chinese domestic affairs and for taking in a Chinese citizen in such an "irregular manner."  He told China's Xinhua news agency that Beijing authorities will investigate and punish all those responsible for helping Chen escape house arrest.

"I think it has always been a challenge for the United States," says Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a Washington research group. "The U.S. stands for very basic human rights issues. The U.S. promotes democracy. The U.S. talks about these issues. If you are dealing front-and-center with another very important country, it is hard to get away from those."

Getting Chen out of the embassy allows Secretary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to focus on the broader global issues at the center of this annual economic and political dialogue in Beijing.

"We cannot make them treat their people better," Bandow said. "If you make this kind of the center of your dispute, you are not going to get anything else done.

"So I think the desperate attempt then is to say, 'Let's talk about these things, but let's be able to set them aside when we have to go and talk about Sudan, go and talk about North Korea, Iran, economic issues, all these other things,'" Bandow added.

But the director of Human Rights Watch China, Sophie Richardson, says it's a mistake to consider human rights as distinct from other U.S./China issues.

"Whether you are talking about product safety; whether you're talking about the validity or the efficacy of trade negotiations; and whether contracts can be upheld, those are fundamentally premised on some basic human rights protections," Richardson says.

While Washington has been strong on some specific cases, including Chen Guangcheng's, Richardson believes the Obama administration's overall performance on human rights in China is uneven.

"In making the case for better human rights protections in China - not just as a peculiar interest of the U.S.'s, but as being in the interest of the Chinese people - there has been some great language on that," Richardson noted. "But I don't think this administration has done a particularly good job of coordinating across the breadth and the depth of the relationship in the service of better protecting human rights issues."

U.S. officials traveling with secretaries Clinton and Geithner say Beijing's response to the Chen case, especially following the ouster of Chongqing Communist Party leader Bo Xilai, reflects a growing disconnect between central and local authority in China.

A senior Obama administration official told reporters in Beijing that Chen "expressed his desire for assistance from the central government in addressing his concerns and grievances, primarily relating to his reported mistreatment and that of his family at the hands of local officials."

And central government officials "further stated that they will investigate reported extralegal activities committed by local Shandong authorities against Mr. Chen and his family."

"Some of the people who have been persecuted in a most brutal way, like Chen Guangcheng, haven't actually called for the ouster of the Chinese Communist Party," Richardson said. "They have called for upholding the rule of law as it is on the books.  And some of the people who have been vocal proponents of continuing Party rule have not been protected as a result of that, Bo Xilai being the best case in point."

Richardson believes the pressure for systemic change in China is only growing.

"People see both in Chen's so-called escape from Shandong and in Bo Xilai's ouster the opportunity for change," Richardson explained. "And that the system is not immutable. And that the senior level leadership has to respond to these kinds of social demands, whether they are about corruption, whether they are about inequality, whether they are about abusive family-planning practices. Simply imposing policies from above and ignoring the fallout, I think, has ceased to be an option."

That seems especially true given Beijing's reaction to the events of the Arab Spring and its continuing support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"I think the leadership is extremely nervous," Doug Bandow noted. "They sit on a volcano. I mean, this is a ruling party that has essentially no legitimacy other than economic prosperity. You have the princelings, people who are kind of living on the legacy of the Communist Party. But this is a very different Communist Party. Issues like corruption bother the Chinese people."

In the short term, Bandow says that concern makes Party leaders clamp down on dissent. But over the long-term, he says it may help bring about change.

"I think there are at least some, like the current premier, who recognize that if you don't allow those kind of release mechanisms, you make it much more dangerous," Bandow says.

"The paranoia has clearly been heightened," says Sophie Richardson. "This is not a representative government. It's not one that is interested in having a conversation in any sort of systematic way with the population as a whole about what people want."

Richardson believes the attention surrounding the Chen Guangcheng and Bo Xilai cases is a "tremendous opportunity for the United States and others who have a stated interest in human rights issues to not just say that they welcome China's rise, meaning the government, but indeed to welcome the rise of people's activism and their efforts to hold their own government to account."

"I think we're at a moment, historically, when governments like the U.S. have to start thinking about a broader relationship with the Chinese people, not just a government that we know is not necessarily representative of popular sentiment."

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Social Media Aids Counter-Terrorism Investigationsi
Katherine Gypson
December 01, 2015 10:06 PM
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, officials carried out waves of raids and arrests to break up terror cells. As VOA's Katherine Gypson reports, social media can be a key tool for investigators.

Video Social Media Aids Counter-Terrorism Investigations

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, officials carried out waves of raids and arrests to break up terror cells. As VOA's Katherine Gypson reports, social media can be a key tool for investigators.

Video Russia Marks World AIDS Day With Grim News

While HIV infection rates have steadied or even declined in many European countries, the caseload has grown rapidly in Russia, as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow. Over half of the new infections were transmitted through injection drug use.

Video Pakistan Hit Hard by Global Warming

As world leaders meet in Paris to craft a new global agreement aimed at cutting climate-changing greenhouse-gas emissions, many developing countries are watching closely for the final results. While most developing nations contribute much less to global warming than developed countries, they often feel the effects to a disproportionate degree. As Saud Zafar reports from Karachi, one such nation is Pakistan. Aisha Khalid narrates his report.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

VOA Blogs