Who Is Chinese Activist Chen Guangcheng?

BY Daniel Sagalyn  April 30, 2012 at 2:22 PM EDT


Chinese guards march outside the U.S. embassy compound in Beijing. Photo by Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images.

The whereabouts of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng remain unclear Monday. He escaped house arrest in his village last week and reportedly sought asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell headed to China to resolve the matter before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner arrive later in the week.

We asked Susan Shirk, chairwoman of the 21st Century China Program and professor of China and Pacific Relations at the University of California-San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, about his case. (Answers edited for length and clarity.)

Who is Chen Guangcheng and why is his case important?

Chen Guangcheng is a 40-year-old blind, self-trained lawyer who has been persecuted for helping villagers to organize a class action law suit against forced sterilizations and abortions, which are illegal according to Chinese law. He was convicted of a trumped-up charge and served four years in prison, and when released, was put under house arrest by the local authorities who allegedly beat him and his family.

Chen is not a “dissident” who is agitating for regime change. He is a legal activist who is trying to get the Chinese government to enforce its own laws.

When he escaped and fled to U.S. protection he issued a video petition to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and the other Communist Party leaders asking them to declare where they stand regarding the brutal extralegal actions of the local officials against him and his family. China’s leaders talk a lot, especially now after the Bo Xilai case case, about enforcing the rule of law.

Chen’s case is different from the Bo Xilai case in almost all respects but one: Both show how the Chinese internal security police are out of control and creating a police state. The question is whether the CCP leadership will now decide to salvage the CCP’s reputation by reining in the security forces and taking steps to strengthen the legal system and other political reforms.

In recent days since Bo and his wife were charged, the official Chinese media has been publishing articles saying that the time has come for political reform; the one exception is the internal security czar who published a piece saying that the legal system has to serve the party.

The nine members of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee — the top leaders of the country — have to decide which way to go: to hunker down and intensify social control or to loosen up and reform. This could be a turning point in the political evolution of China.

What impact will this have on the political situation in Beijing?

The Standing Committee of the Politburo must be intensely debating what to do now to prevent a meltdown of public support for the CCP and a public split in the leadership — the combination of the two could bring down the regime. Their international reputation is a secondary consideration.

The public doesn’t know much about Chen Guangcheng because of censorship, but Bo Xilai had a great many followers until his criminality and corruption were revealed. The two crises together open up the possibility that the reform element in the CCP can make a case that political reform is long overdue and is now the best way to preserve support for the party. It could even lead to a new, more open way of selecting leaders within the CCP at the big party congress next fall along the lines of the way Vietnam chooses its leaders.

What are the United States’ options for handling this?

The best outcome for the United States and for China is that the Chinese leaders order a review of the case and the outrageous way the local officials enforced Chen’s house arrest and free Chen to stay in China in order to demonstrate they respect the rule of law. Some leaders already are talking about political reform as a way to restore the Communist Party’s reputation after the shocking revelations of criminality and corruption at the top related to the Bo Xilai case.

The U.S. doesn’t want to get in the way of a domestic dynamic that might lead to political improvements for the Chinese people. That’s why a low-key diplomatic approach rather than public tub thumping and ultimatum is called for. The U.S. should not get in the middle of this situation in a way that will provide China with the excuse to blame “hostile foreign forces.”

The second best outcome is for China to allow Chen and his family to leave the country and seek asylum in the United States.

What the U.S. absolutely cannot do is force him out of the embassy into the arms of the security police. The negotiations on his future could take months. When activist Fang Lizhi sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in 1989, it took a year before the Chinese agreed to allow him and his wife to leave the country for medical care.

What will happen when U.S. officials arrive later this week?

Secretary Clinton must visit with Chen when she is in Beijing next week. Not to meet with him to hear directly his hopes for his future and to express the respect and support of the American people would be shameful and unthinkable. The Chinese may object strenuously and cancel the Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks; that is a risk she must take — maybe she could do so after the talks are completed.

If the Chinese decide to take advantage of this opportunity to move in the direction of political reform, it will benefit the long-term relationship with the United States. But in the immediate term, it might not.

The CCP leaders, who are struggling to form a consensus on how to handle the Chen Guangcheng and Bo Xilai situations — whether to rebuild the CCP’s reputation by introducing political reforms and strengthening rule of law, or go the other direction to intensifying internal controls over society — may get agreement by combining loosening up domestically with taking tough stands internationally, particularly in relation to the United States.

Susan Shirk and Sasha Gong, director of the China Branch at Voice of America, will discuss Chen’s case on Monday’s NewsHour. View all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter.