“Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty” said Thomas Jefferson.
The case of Chinese blind activist Chen Guangcheng from Linyi, Shandong province, who in a daring night time escape to Beijing sought refuge in the US embassy, is proving to be a symbolic clash between the US constitutional value of liberty and China’s value of absolute state control.
One might ask on why this is such a critical matter for China. After teaching himself basic law, Chen exposed officials who forced women to have abortions in order to reach their family planning targets.
As he began to throw light on these problems, Linyi officials abducted him and placed him under house arrest. After being under arrest for a year for “disrupting traffic and damaging property” he was put back under house arrest with almost 100 guards around his home in the village.
Chen has been the most prominent of the’ human rights’ activists in China, trying to nudge the country towards a system of ‘rule of law’. His protracted and brutal suppression of human rights has been a ready reference for foreign governments to point out to the weakness in China’s current system of governance.
His midnight run to the US Embassy in Beijing is proving to be a test for the Chinese leadership in Beijing to restore the primacy of the government. While for the US diplomatic leadership, including Hillary Clinton and Obama administration, this has so far been a walk on eggshells.
Chen has requested the US government to let him and his family leave for the US. “I want to come to the US to rest. I have not had a rest in 10 years,” Chen was quoted as saying to a US congressional hearing. Meanwhile, during her parallel talks in Beijing, Clinton pressed China on human rights but avoided mention of Chen, focusing on North Korea and Iran.
The reactions to the episode have been diverse and across the full range of spectrum. “Chen Guangcheng has become a tool and pawn for American politicians to blacken China,” the Beijing Daily said. But the official news agency, Xinhua and the Communist party paper, the People’s Daily, have joined the chorus and suggested to some extent that there is no consensus among Chinese leaders on how to handle the issue.
The US media on the other hand has been quick to involve the Presidential candidates into the issue. Mitt Romney lost no time in criticizing the Obama administration and calling the episode a “dark day for freedom”. Abby Huntsman Livingston, daughter of the former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, who worked at the Beijing embassy for a year, criticized both the candidates for how they handled the sensitive diplomatic issue.
It is hard to predict where this is heading. The only other obvious instance of a dissident being granted custody by a foreign diplomatic mission in Communist China is the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, after the Tiananmen protests.
However, global power dynamics have evolved since 1989 and China not only has far more international leverage because of its economic and strategic might but also is extremely sensitive to international opinion than two decades ago.
It is a zero sum game in which the Chinese government would hardly want to come out as having lost out. Everyone is rightly concerned for Chen and his family’s safety. Let’s hope that liberty does not come with a high price for our friends across the border.