In 1989, astrophysicist Fang Lizhi and his wife took refuge in the US embassy in Beijing after his speeches and articles inspired many students to take part in the ill-fated Tiananmen protest. Staying in the embassy for nearly a year, a deal was eventually reached to allow the couple asylum in the US.
Back then, China was just emerging and not the great power it is today. In contrast, the drawn-out crisis over Chen Guangcheng’s plea for safe passage for him and his family to the US is a serious strain on US-China relations and is unsettling for the region.
The Obama administration is under pressure to prove that US moral leadership in Asia has mettle, and has some difficult decisions to make. But Chen’s very public request for asylum is already a disaster for Beijing.
Chen’s six years of house arrest—supplemented by occasional torture and beatings—is already well known by many Chinese citizens. Until now, Beijing washed its hands of his ordeal, preferring instead to pass the moral blame on to local Shandong province officials. But the blind lawyer’s escape from his home to the US embassy in Beijing, and his request for asylum, now make it an international issue and therefore the central government’s responsibility.
Unfortunately for China, there are no good outcomes possible.
If China allows US authorities to fly Chen and his family out of China, Beijing will fear establishing a precedent for other prominent dissidents to try the same escape. Chen has a higher profile than other declared “dissidents”.
But he is not alone. There are thousands of citizens under house arrest and millions of others engaged each year in at least 150,000 instances of “mass unrest”, according to official figures.
In a country that admits to spending $US111 billion ($107.8bn) on internal security designed to enforce civil compliance and control domestic unrest, any show of weakness and willingness to compromise is viewed by the Chinese Communist Party as a dangerous concession and an admission of loss of authority.
Yet, refusal to budge on Chen’s demands for asylum will not quell civil unrest or inhibit the activities of other dissidents. Forcing Chen to remain in China will serve to make a hero out of him—a far more dangerous proposition for the Communist Party than if Chen were to leave. Chen would also serve as a constant lightning rod for criticism of the country’s human-rights record for foreign dignitaries, human rights activists and reporters.
Just as there are no good options ahead for Beijing, the incident is already damaging the country internationally.
Although there has been much economic progress since the 1989 protests, Chen’s plight is testament to the fact that the leaders of the world’s second-largest economy are yet to conclude a durable and legitimate political and social compact with their own people. China is the only major power that remains an autocracy. Beijing is convinced – quite correctly – that the US will be very reluctant to “cede” regional leadership to China in future if political reforms remained stalled in the country.
The saga will only reinforce the conviction that China remains as morally and politically isolated in the region now as it was in 1989—despite its emergence as the leading trading partner of every liberal-democracy in Asia.
Allowing Chen to leave China could be Beijing’s best option. Previous Chinese dissidents granted asylum or to have chosen exile lose relevance in their own country. The statement by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs that US interference in China’s domestic affairs is intolerable makes this option less feasible, and granting Chen passage to the US even more humiliating, were it to occur.
There is a final consequence of the deepening crisis. Chen has taken the dramatic move of making a call to a US congressional hearing to enlist support for his asylum plea. Mitt Romney has criticised US officials for encouraging or else allowing Chen to leave the embassy, calling it a “dark day for freedom”.
Disputes between the US and China have rarely become an election issue in the lead-up to a presidential poll. If Chen’s future is not resolved, that could all change.