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Blind Dissident’s Escape: an ‘Opportunity’ for Chinese Government?

April 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng declared his freedom in a YouTube video, President Obama declined to speak directly Monday about the delicate diplomatic situation. Gwen Ifill discusses the story's significance and how it unfolded with Susan Shirk of the University of California, San Diego and Voice of America's Sasha Gong.

GWEN IFILL: For more on this unfolding story, we turn to Susan Shirk, a professor of China and Pacific relations at University of California, San Diego. She was deputy assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration. And Sasha Gong, director of the China branch at Voice of America. Born in China, she was jailed for a year during the 1970s for participating in political protests.

Sasha Gong, I want to start by asking you, some people are comparing this to the movie “The Shawshank Redemption.” And, apparently, those words are even being banned on the Chinese version of Twitter today. How did this happen? How did Chen escape?

SASHA GONG, Voice of America: Well, this is indeed a more interesting story.

And what — we got the report is that, actually, he planned for — planned the whole event for a few months, and he pretended to be sick or something like that, and just to loosen up the guards. By the way, the reports are that he had dozens of guards guarding outside.

And he just — he calculated the time of the guards going out to get water and coming back. That’s 10 seconds. He used that 10 seconds to — somehow to cross the big wall. And. . .

GWEN IFILL: Even though he couldn’t see where he was going, which is part of the amazing part of this.

SASHA GONG: Yeah, he’s blind.

And we actually talked to the people who took him out, who drove him out, is that he was injured and he was in not very good condition, but he managed to escape.

GWEN IFILL: Susan Shirk, how sympathetically is he perceived in general in China?

SUSAN SHIRK, Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, University of California: My guess is most people don’t know anything about him in China.

Because of censorship, he’s probably better known in the United States than in China. Most figures like this, their name is blocked out of the Chinese media. So they’re not very well-known. Certainly, Bo Xilai was better known than Chen Guangcheng.

GWEN IFILL: Well, so then why are people saying that — and why did we just hear Hillary Clinton say that she is certainly going to bring up the issue of human rights? What is it about this case which makes that come up now?

SUSAN SHIRK: Well, he has taken flight in the U.S. Embassy.

This is a blind, self-taught lawyer who has been persecuted for advocating that China obey its own laws in banning forced abortion and forced sterilization. Now he’s taught — sought refuge from the United States. Of course we have to protect him.

We also have to try to encourage the Chinese government to see this as an opportunity. I know that sounds a little naive, but there are many voices coming out of the top levels of Chinese leadership right now that are calling for a nation under rule of law. So this is the opportunity for the Chinese government to show that it really is a nation that is ruled by law.

GWEN IFILL: Sasha Gong, a senior administration official said that they — that we’re searching for the appropriate balance. In the past, the appropriate balance has been to focus on discussions between the U.S. and China on trade or currency issues, not necessarily on human rights.

Is it even possible to find an appropriate balance?

SASHA GONG: Well, for human rights, it should be part of trade and economic relations, because you can’t say, well, we developed trade and the economic relations first and the disregard of human rights. That’s not who we are. We are the United States of America.

And, well, I think what — from what we from Voice of America heard is that original plan of this talk is still, well, we focus on protecting U.S. investments and all that. But after this event, I think human rights will be at the front page, and we will talk about it.

GWEN IFILL: Is it possible in this situation for Chen to stay in China after all this is resolved? He’s not talked about necessarily seeking asylum in the U.S., even that that’s apparently on the table.

SASHA GONG: Before he went in hiding, he talked to a few people we interviewed. And he told his friends he prefer not to leave China. He prefer to stay in China.

So I think, if he insists on staying in China, it will be a big problem for both countries, both governments. It will say, hey, you have two choices, either set him free, or the Chinese government can arrest him, which makes that a very — bigger problem. Or for the United States government and if he refused to leave, what are you going to do?

GWEN IFILL: Susan Shirk, what do you think about that? Is it possible for him to stay and there is there an appropriate balance that can be struck?

SUSAN SHIRK: You know, unless the Chinese government does something very dramatic at this point to show that — you know, like firing the head of public security or undertaking some major steps forward in strengthening the legal system, I think it’s pretty well impossible for them to creditably commit to protect Mr. Chen, his family, his associates in a way that we would really believe.

So, even though he wants to stay in China, and certainly, if he leaves China, his role, his influence will wither away. That’s what happens to all these brave individuals. But I really don’t see any alternative to negotiating his asylum in the United States.

But, remember, the last time this happened with Fang Lizhi, it took us a year to do it. And now Secretary Clinton in 24 hours is about to land in Beijing. I hope that Kurt Campbell has worked miracles, but I’m not very optimistic about coming to an agreement before these talks start.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you about something you brought up earlier, which is that there’s a lot of other domestic political turmoil within China right now. Is there any connection between this and the other case, or can there be?

SUSAN SHIRK: Well, there’s no direct connection.

But I think they’re both the result of a system in which the internal security police have really gone out of control. The great insecurity of China’s leaders about domestic threats to their rule have caused them to allow the control cartel, I call them, the internal security people, the propaganda people — you know, they’re basically allowed to do whatever they want and the Standing Committee of the Politburo is not restraining them.

And if you look at both these cases, I think they’re a reflection of that very deep problem in Chinese politics today.

GWEN IFILL: Sasha, you’re nodding as she says that.

SASHA GONG: Well, this is a very funny fact, is that in order to maintain sufficient police system, you have to have some true believers.

And in China, we doubt there are any true believers and a lot of resources are put here mainly because there are resources. If you look at China today, the Chinese government is spending more money on what they call maintaining tranquility or maintaining stability in the country than in military.

No country ever does this, so is that they spent more money. It a humongous amount of money which, you know, allows local police and — or the security people to stay there and to put as much money there. . .

GWEN IFILL: Well, what does have to do with what happens to Chen?

SASHA GONG: It has a lot to do with that.

Look at how much — how many people they put in his detail to monitor him, but how easy he escaped. And if you think of — if there’s a very sufficient police system monitoring that, and I doubt a blind man can escape dozens of people’s watch. But he did.

GWEN IFILL: And, Susan Shirk, very briefly, does this have any effect on the United States’ efforts, the Obama administration’s efforts to try to get on a firmer, calmer track with China?

SUSAN SHIRK: Of course, right now, we’re trying to — both sides working to restore trust in one another.

But I can tell you from my own experience in government that the best way to restore trust is for China to be moving in the right direction politically. It makes a huge, huge difference. And if China hunkers down and tightens up as a result of these two political shocks it’s had lately, then it’s going to be a very rocky road ahead for relations with the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Susan Shirk, U.C. San Diego, and Sasha Gong from Voice of America, thank you both very much.

SASHA GONG: Thank you.

SUSAN SHIRK: Thank you.