U.S. relations with China are being put to the test over the fate of Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident who escaped from house arrest in China and is believed to be in the U.S. embassy or another safe site. NBC's Ian Williams reports.
BEIJING – As China prepares to welcome U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday for an annual meeting on important bilateral issues, the focus of her visit has turned to the unresolved plight of Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, now under U.S. diplomatic protection. How will the latest controversy impact China-U.S. ties that are already beset by old and new problems?
Last week, Chen staged a daring escape from house arrest. He traveled 300 miles with the aid of supporters and has reportedly entered the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for protection.
His dramatic feat, despite blindness and 24-hour surveillance by Chinese security guards, has added to embarrassment in Beijing – which was already grappling with the leadership scandal triggered by a former Chinese police chief who tried to seek asylum at a U.S. consulate. In both cases, the United States was sought out as a source of protection.
The case of Cheng, a human rights campaigner who spent four years in prison and the last 19 months under house arrest, is like “a hot potato that the two governments will have to deal with,” according to Professor Jin Canrong, who teaches international relations at the People’s University of China.
One of many issues
“There are some people in China who believe that there is some kind of American conspiracy to take advantage of China’s domestic problems to embarrass China, but these people are rather marginalized,” said Jin, who specializes on China-U.S. relations.
“The mainstream thinking is that certain problems, like the Chen Guangcheng case, can be treated as separate issues, even if they are embarrassing for China in some ways. China’s leaders have learned to accept that China is a big country with so many problems and that some kind of embarrassment is inevitable. [And that] there is no conspiracy behind these issues,” Jin added.
The case of Cheng has only signaled that China and the U.S. are entering a “very difficult period,” he added.
“We are facing a trust deficit. Old issues will remain like Taiwan, Tibet and others, but there will be more and more new issues,” he said. He noted greater regional leadership competition between China and U.S., the controversy over China’s military modernization, trade and economic conflicts, and what he called “the greater diversification of Chinese society” that is reshaping China’s domestic politics.
“From a diplomatic perspective, it is better to resolve the Chen Guangcheng case, this headache issue, as soon as possible,” he said.
‘Did not violate Chinese laws’
Surprisingly, a prominent human rights campaigner and a supporter of Chen seemed to echo a similar moderate sentiment.
“I hope that Mrs. Hillary Clinton will not regard the case as a diplomatic crisis,” said Hu Jia, who met Chen after his escape.
Hu, a leading activist who spent more than three years in prison on charges of state security violations, was detained for 24 hours for police investigation after he met Chen. “He hugged me warmly, lifting my feet off the ground,” Hu said of his meeting with Chen.
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In a transcript of a telephone interview with ITV News that was shared with NBC News, Hu Jia made a startling revelation that government authorities hold a benign view of Chen’s escape, too. According to Hu, police investigators said that Chen’s escape and the actions of those who aided him to find U.S. diplomatic protection “did not violate Chinese laws.”
“Therefore, the U.S. government should feel confident about this issue… I want to say to Mrs. Hillary Clinton that she should regard this case as an opportunity, not some kind of trouble,” said Hu.
He said the U.S. should see it as a chance for the U.S. government to urge China to respect human rights and to “use the resolution of the Chen Guangcheng case to boost the confidence of the international community” in China.
Providing more details of his meeting with Chen, Hu said that Chen has “grown more silver hair, his hands were shivering, and there were bruises and injuries caused by climbing over the wall.”
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Both sides looking for a resolution
Hu said that after Chen entered the U.S. Embassy, China’s Foreign Ministry immediately contacted the U.S. Embassy for “negotiation.” So far, “no concrete results,” he said.
According to one well-informed source with close ties to China's dissident community, there is "lots of pressures" to resolve the case.
"Chen is demanding protection for himself and his family and respect for his rights, but if that cannot be granted, then he may have no choice but to travel abroad for medical treatment," said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
However, despite various reports that both China and the United States are trying to hammer out a deal to resolve the case ahead of Clinton's visit, a government source said that no breakthrough has been achieved.
"No news yet," according to the source who also requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case.