By Steve Tsang.

The blind Chinese activist, Chen Guangcheng, had escaped illegal confinement, sought safety in the US embassy in Beijing for six days, and has now reportedly left the embassy on his own volition. Mr Chen is now in a medical facility in Beijing, with US personnel accompanying him. Quiet diplomacy has ensured the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue will not be derailed. But the problem has not disappeared.

The Obama administration cannot afford to let Mr Chen be imprisoned in his own home again, particularly in an election year. Does this mean the Chinese government has agreed to do the right thing?

The right thing is to investigate the appeals Mr Chen has made to Premier Wen Jiabao, and if his allegations of illegal confinement, assault and torture are confirmed, put those responsible through a court of law and let the law run its course. This is what Mr Chen, a courageous blind, self-taught (and therefore not formally qualified) lawyer, is seeking.

Mr Chen is not a fugitive from the law in China. He did not escape legal custody for having broken a law and nor has he been accused of doing so. Yet he and his family had been illegally confined to their home (though they were reportedly reunited with him yesterday). His young daughter has been harassed. His wife has been badly beaten and subsequently denied access to medical facilities. Those who perpetuated such acts have long let it be known that they are employees of the Chinese authorities.

In fact, all Mr Chen did was to escape illegal imprisonment in his own home and travel to another part of his country to seek safety from his tormentors. Mr Chen has reportedly not sought asylum from the US authorities. There is no law that prohibits a Chinese citizen from entering or staying in a foreign embassy if invited. The Chinese demand for the US government to apologise for hosting Mr Chen for six days is ridiculous.

Legal niceties aside, there is a real political and diplomatic issue at hand. There is next to no chance for the Chinese government to act on Mr Chen’s plea for an investigation into abuses by its officials. It is equally unrealistic to expect that Mr Chen and his family’s rights as citizens will be upheld after international attention on this has faded. His family is still under illegal confinement and some of those who said they had helped Mr Chen to escape are now being detained.

Even though Mr Chen has stressed that he has no wish to leave China and would merely like to assert his constitutional rights, political realism suggests that he has crossed the point of no return. His daring escape caused huge international embarrassment for the Chinese leadership. The fact that this happened in the once-in-a-decade succession year when the top leadership is already preoccupied with dealing with the aftermath of the Bo Xilai scandal renders the chance of Mr Chen’s wishes being met sheer fantasy.

The least bad outcome now is for quiet diplomacy to enable the Chinese and the American governments to reach an agreement for Mr Chen and his family to leave for the US, or to a third country if necessary. The Chinese central government can always heap the blame for previous misconduct on local authorities and appear magnanimous towards Mr Chen.

This course of action has two added advantages for China’s leaders, who must overcome the erroneous notion that allowing Mr Chen’s move to the US would be perceived as an act of weakness.

First, it places the onus on the US to persuade Mr Chen to leave his home country. Second, to remove him is to remove a thorn in the side of the Communist Party; insisting he stay under house arrest in China would only serve as a rallying cry to other Chinese activists.

The risk Mr Chen will become an internationally celebrated critic of China’s human rights record, in the mould of Ai Weiwei, should he be allowed to leave China is very low.

Since Mr Chen speaks only Mandarin and his advocacy has always been about requiring the Chinese authorities to respect Chinese laws, his capacity to attract international attention will fail to endure once he ceases being the heroic victim courageously standing up against government sanctioned abuses. How many people in the West now recognise the name Wei Jingsheng – the once world-famous advocate of “the fifth modernisation” or democratisation?

The US government should secure this as a second best outcome. There is a limit to what it can do to push human rights to be upheld in China. But it can at least provide a home to heroic advocates like Mr Chen when they can no longer carry on with their work.

While exile is clearly not what Mr Chen desires, he would be well advised to accept. The political system in China is not moving towards democratisation or the rule of law, though the law is increasingly being used by the Party to maintain stability.

The regime remains that of a consultative Leninist system dedicated foremost to keeping the Communist Party in power. Realistically, Mr Chen has reached the point where he has done as much as he or, for that matter, any individual, can in the political environment of China today. It is time for him and his family to rebuild their lives.

This article was firstly published in The National under the title of  ‘Chinese dissident will continue to test US-China ties’  on Thursday 3 May 2012.

Steve Tsang is director of the China Policy Institute and a professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.



  1. My first reaction was “sheer brilliance.” I wonder though, Professor Tsang, whether you’ve been too quick in thinking Chen Guangcheng will not be a star. Americans are oft inspired by celebrities living with disabilities, disfigurements and so on, think Helen Keller (deaf, mute and blind), Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles in the music world, amongst others. If he gets on Oprah, he’ll be a big hit. It’s clear he is talented and if he hasn’t the charisma, the States can craft a persona out of a dead apple. If he taught himself law, there’s no reason he can’t learn English and if it logically follows that he appears on Oprah, he could be a lasting hit.

    1. Thank you, Sam. You may well be right – and I certainly hope that you are right and I was wrong about this. He will have a mountain to climb in learning the American way – but then he did something no less impressive in his daring escape. But such a prospect should not, and it apparently has not, deterred the Chinese leadership in getting quiet diplomacy to do the work on this occasion.

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