By Steve Tsang.

Quiet diplomacy has long received short shrift from China when addressing human rights issues. The case of Chen Guangcheng, however, marks a significantly more sophisticated approach to its negotiations with the US.

If both sides maintain their composure, Chen and his family will soon be allowed to leave for the US, a striking reflection of how the two countries’ diplomatic relationship has progressed to where they can focus on shared interests and avoid differences that appear certain to put them on a collision course.

When Chen left the US embassy for a Beijing hospital, the Obama administration came under heavy fire for “abandoning” the legal rights activist to what is in effect Chinese custody. Republican challenger Mitt Romney spoke of a “day of shame”; a host of US foreign policy analysts appeared in the mainstream media to lament an American betrayal and a failure of diplomacy. I beg to differ.

It is still early days, but the signs are that, this time, behind-the-scenes diplomacy is set to deliver an outcome that is acceptable to both sides.

Prior to Chen leaving the US embassy, a deal was undoubtedly done between the US and Chinese authorities. We have been told this involved Chen and his family being relocated from their home village and Chen being allowed to study in one of seven designated Chinese law schools. We also know that Chen was told that if he did not accept this and leave the US embassy, his family would be sent back to their home village, with all that this would entail.

This deal was not workable. Unless specifically instructed to do so by Beijing, no law school or local authority in China would welcome Chen. Protecting him from local harassment while keeping him quiet over the long term are contradictory requirements for the Communist Party. It is neither a realistic nor sustainable option.

Keeping Chen in China to punish him for causing considerable embarrassment through a daring dash to a foreign embassy may well conform to Beijing’s typical treatment of dissidents. But in a turbulent year of political succession already clouded by the Bo Xilai scandal, it is not in China’s interests to come under further pressure from Washington over an issue that could easily escalate into a US presidential election point-scorer.

Chen could do far more damage to party interests from within than from overseas. His departure would remove a thorn in the party’s side.

Before Chen left the embassy, an understanding between the US and China must have been reached. The general principles are likely to have included the proviso that the rights activist be allowed to go to the US if he first returned to Chinese jurisdiction. The preferred outcome would have been for Chen to stay in China and be a “good citizen” on the condition that he did not cause further embarrassment to the Chinese authorities.

The two sides are likely to have agreed in principle that if Chen requested to leave China, it must not be ostensibly to seek political asylum. The US would refrain from publicly scoring political points at China’s expense and, in return, Beijing would ensure Chen’s safety.

All of the above have basically been adhered to since Chen was admitted to Chaoyang hospital. If a successful resolution comes to pass, it will signal an intelligent use of quiet diplomacy to prevent a politically sensitive issue from escalating into a diplomatic crisis.

This should not be diminished by the unreasonable Chinese demand of an apology from the US for playing host to a Chinese citizen at its embassy for six days. President Hu Jintao cannot afford to appear weak in the face of American pressure and this demand was meant primarily for domestic consumption.

The safe departure of Chen and his family would not only represent a victory of sorts for the activist but would also reflect skilful diplomatic manoeuvring by both the US and China, which has ultimately allowed both sides to save face.

 This article was firstly published in the South China Morning Post under the title of ‘Discretion the better part of diplomacy in Chen case’ on Tuesday 15 May 2012.

Steve Tsang is the director of the China Policy Institute and 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. A very prescient analysis, as it turned out! Commonsense prevailed on both sides, which one can only hope is repeated in the future if similar tensions arise between the two countries, which they undoubtedly will.

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