Reflections on Chen Guangcheng’s Escape

First off, apologies to everyone for the lack of updates as of late. In part, it’s because I’ve been trying to keep a lower profile since certain CCTV hosts threatened to sue me, but mostly I’ve just been extremely busy with the film and a number of personal things. That will remain true for a few weeks at least, but please stay tuned, as I’ve got some good stuff in the cannon for later.

Anyway, now that Chen’s been safely in the US for a while and the American right-wing seems to have abandoned its utterly idiotic quest to paint him as a pro-life Christian figure, it seems as good a time as any to reflect on Chen’s escape or, more to the point, the collective reaction to it, and what, exactly, went wrong.

The mistake that I think almost everyone made was assuming that Chen was emotionally and mentally stable enough to be handling the international media or making decisions about his own life and his family’s lives within days of his harrowing escape from nearly two years of torture and isolation. I was taking the latest word on what Chen had said a bit too seriously, without fully considering what he had been through and what effect that probably had on his mental and physical state. Nor was I giving adequate consideration to the fact that he probably wasn’t aware that his every word was being amplified and broadcast as gospel to the world. I wasn’t that harsh in my criticism of the US Embassy at the time, but my concerns about the its handling of the case proved to be unwarranted.

(I want to stress, also, that it’s not my intention to criticize the media for broadcasting Chen’s statements as news. This was, after all, a massive story, and what its central player was saying is undeniably news. If anything, perhaps those closest to Chen should have advised him not to speak with the media for a little while, or not published everything he said live on Twitter. But in their position, I suspect I would have done the exact same thing. Basically, it was a very difficult situation for everyone.)

That said, and with the caveat that I have no inside info whatsoever, it would certainly seem as though US officials may have made the same mistake. One gets the impression they may have been rushing to resolve the situation before the SED talks, which is totally understandable from a policy perspective. But from a psychological perspective, it would almost certainly have been better to give Chen more time. That may not have been possible — I don’t know — but Chen being left alone in the hospital after he left the embassy would seem to be a sign that the US perhaps hadn’t fully considered his mental state and how he might feel abandoned in a situation like that.

Emotions certainly played a role in my own reaction to the story, too. Obviously, Chen’s case is one I had been following for quite a while, and his unexpected escape and subsequent release from the embassy all took me completely by surprise. I think it was an emotional time for a lot of us who have been following the case closely, and in my own case at the very least, it probably led me to draw conclusions — or at least to suggest potential conclusions — too quickly before the situation had been given a chance to play out.

That said, I maintain that my cynicism about the Chinese government’s commitment to holding up its side of the bargain was entirely warranted. Although US diplomats entering the picture certainly changed the situation, the fact remains that there is virtually nothing in Chen’s past to indicate the government would have any interest in treating him fairly, redressing his grievances, or allowing him to leave the country. Trust must be earned, and although (despite some suggestions to the contrary) I do not believe China’s government to be entirely evil, it had done nothing to earn any sort of trust with regards to Chen’s case. Aside from bringing his family to Beijing — albeit as a bargaining chip of sorts to get him out of the embassy — there were no signs of good faith ((I do not consider the Foreign Ministry’s statements to be a sign of anything. Yes, it said Chen would be allowed to leave China, but it also said Melissa Chan broke “relevant laws” and that Al Jazeera’s English bureau in Beijing is operating normally, among numerous other lies…)), and more than a few indications of bad faith. Chen’s phone service was interfered with, journalists were barred from visiting him, and even US diplomats were kept out at times. Chaoyang Hospital — a fairly unpleasant place under the best of circumstances ((my wife had surgery there once; it was an awful experience.)) — turned into a bizarre sort of prison with helmeted security guards and plainclothes police roaming the halls.

Of course, Chen ultimately was allowed to leave (though I doubt he’ll be allowed to return). Under the circumstances, that was the right move for China and the government should be applauded for making it ((Then it should be condemned for failing to make it years earlier, failing to prosecute Chen’s captors, and failing to protect Chen’s family in Shandong from the illegal and ongoing campaign of revenge for his escape.)). The cleanup of Chen’s home village and the disappearance of the guards there is a sign that the government may even be planning to investigate Chen’s imprisonment as it promised to, though Chen Kegui’s lawyers not being allowed to represent him is an extremely troubling sign. However, that doesn’t change the fact that prior to Chen’s flight out of China, there was plenty of precedent for pessimism and the only reason for optimism was that now the US was more directly involved, sort of. That turned out to be enough, but I don’t think it was at all unreasonable of me to be skeptical.

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20 thoughts on “Reflections on Chen Guangcheng’s Escape”

  1. Welcome back, Charlie C. If that xenophobic jerkoff ever decides to sue you, you can rely on us to finance your defence.

    Be careful with “good” and “evil” though: it’s a morally relative distinction that can lead to “righteousness” becoming your cause, and then eventually you end up making Holy War on anyone different…

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  2. @ narfweasels:

    Awesome name.

    And yes, I agree. I said “not entirely evil” in the post, but probably I should have been more clear. I do think that some actions can be classified as good or evil, but people are almost always more complicated. And, like all governments, the Chinese government is made up of people.

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  3. I think the final accounting of the CCP’s role in this 2 year fiasco is still far in the offing. In the short term, allowing CGC to leave was doing right by him. But it was also the politically expedient thing for the CCP to do. He was more of a headache than he was worth, especially in this of all years. Whether anything comes of the investigation into the allegations leveled by CGC into those local corrupt officials will be far more telling. I’m not particularly hopeful about that one.

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  4. The reasons US conservatives have backed off on sharp criticism of the State Dept’s handling of the Chen drama are 1) that it turned out well (for Chen at least) and 2) some actions that looked damning, or appeared so to a confused Chen, in the heat of the moment turned out to be explainable. I have it on reliable authority that Chen was not left alone in the hospital that first night, only that the US officials stepped away to let him have private space and time with his wife and child.

    Also, from Washington, it was my perception that it was the US far left (and PRChinese nationalists) who sought to “tar” CGC with association with pro-lifers and not the pro-lifers themselves who were trying to draft him to their cause. As you clearly know from your work, there is a rather broad tent of activists who work the tough rights issues and crises create odd bedfellows.

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  5. “Not A Recommended Substitute For Weasels” Blame the French.

    Good and evil are just so tough to define, especially when you factor inRealist considerations of the national interest. However, it’s difficult to see how forcing people to abort near-term babies is anything other than evil. It’s difficult to understand how the extralegal detention of a blind man and his family is “in the national interest” when it is arguably in the national interest to be seen as following the rule of law.

    From a purely inter-natinal perspective, Realism mostly holds sway, but I’d like to see a more Liberal turn within nation-states themselves. Again, the theory goes that liberal democracies don’t make war on one another.

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  6. The cleanup of Chen’s home village and the disappearance of the guards there is a sign that the government may even be planning to investigate Chen’s imprisonment as it promised to

    Well the cynic inside me is saying that the village is being cleaned up so that the authorities can conduct their investigation and say that Chen’s claims were unfounded because there’s no physical evidence to prove what he said was true.

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  7. To Raj,

    that sounds about right. First, remove any paraphernalia related to his illegal house arrest, like the cameras and monitors. Second, disperse the goons, and find another means to keep the corruption money flowing to the local officials. Third, send in the investigators, who will dutifully investigate and report that there was nothing to be found. It would be a standard issue CCP snow job.

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  8. narsfweasels, there is a reason why I am not a liberal. Liberals tend to deny original sin, and as a consequence they can be smug, arrogant, sanctimonious and self-satisfied, and this leads them to become hypernationalists and warmongers against regimes which do not fit their standards of what is ‘democratic’. (Think of all of the liberal internationalist support there was for the War in Iraq, not to mention Libya and now Syria.) And it is simply not true that democratic regimes don’t go to war with each other, and I’m not talking plebiscitary dictatorships or ‘democratic centralist’ regimes either. The War of 1812 was a case in which one democratic nation declared war on another. So was the Six-Day War. So were the conflicts in former Yugoslavia. As a general rule, the Kantian democratic peace theory is completely bogus.

    Of course, I agree with you that international-relations realism has definite limitations, and that there should be some normative dimension to our foreign policy. That said, realists have been fairly consistently on the side of the angels, coming down against prolonged and disproportionate interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

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  9. Over at the “Free CGC” Facebook Page I posted:

    “A child is beaten by his parents.

    A neighbor steps in to care for the child.

    Then, the parents say, give my child back to me.

    The child wants to go back to support his sisters, and so there is a temporary agreement to return the child.

    As soon as the child goes back home, the parents start to beat the child again, in front of all the neighbors.

    Why?

    Because they want to show that this is my child. They will show everyone they will do whatever they want. Don’t you ever run away again, the parents say, and no one should ever interfere with my family matters. The neighbor who cared for the child should apologize.

    Then, the parents kick the child out of the home because he got too much attention from the neighbours. The parents say, I allow him to leave, in the way I prefer.”

    As to the choice of CGC for publicity over quiet reflection:

    ‎”I am convinced that publicity is the sole effective means of combating the evil and lawlessness which is rampant in my country today.”

    Anatoly Marchenko – Soviet Dissident who died in 1986 in prison regarding the Human rights situation in the then Soviet Union

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  10. CC, you earlier ran a story “In CGC’s Case Follow the money”, which I read with interest.

    It seems you where “right on the money”, all 150 Billion Yuan of it. You may wish to follow up on this story some more…

    I posted this a few weeks ago on the FB Page:

    Chen Guangcheng – ONE IN A MILLION

    According to recent estimates, at this point in time there are around ONE MILLION upstanding Chinese citizens under “special surveillance”. Few of these citizens have broken any laws, or have ever been charge in courts of law with any misdeed.

    Targeted are growing numbers of people, from typical political dissidents to labor organizers and, increasingly, ordinary Chinese who want Beijing to correct local wrongdoing.

    “Social activists that no one has ever heard of have 10 people watching them,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. As one example – a School Teacher in Qianjiang is prevented from teaching, yet is driven every day to the school he taught at for years and where he is still officially employed.

    There he sits in a room all day, until he is returned to his apartment (which he shares with his wife and daughter) and which is fitted with surveillance cameras. Between 14 to 50 people a day are watching him. They are paid around 50 Yuan for a day shift, double for a night shift.

    This is big business for poor physical education teachers and minor officials, who can make this money “on the side”. His crimes? Non he was ever charged with in any court of law in China.

    This year the budget for the euphemistically named “central stabilisation fund” would appear around 150 Billion Yuan (around 24 Billion US Dollar), all for surveillance and guards to keep people who have broken no law, but are somehow considered “destabilising” under lock and stock.

    That is 150,000 Yuan a Year used for EACH of the people targeted, a huge amount of money for a country where a skilled worker may earn less than a third of this sum per year, before taxes.

    This is BIG, BIG Business and no doubt, those who put out these contracts on the heads of innocent people receive their own kickbacks up the chain.

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  11. Is the Chinese Government Evil? No more so than any Government…

    Yet many of those who hold posts in this government (from the fathers of all the son’s of Li Gang via Bo Xilai all the way to Zhou Yongkang) seem to have very little if any regard for fairness, justice or the betterment of lot of the common Chinese People or the betterment of China as a Nation. On the other hands, their purses seem very close to their hearts.

    The situation makes often consider the classic Chinese Novel “Water Margin” and consider what people may do who have been abused more than they can endure and who have been deprived of any avenue to seek re-dress.

    Is modern China “At the water margin”?

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  12. “narsfweasels, there is a reason why I am not a liberal.”

    I’m not particularly interested in why you are or aren’t anything.

    “Liberals tend to deny original sin, and as a consequence they can be smug, arrogant, sanctimonious and self-satisfied,”

    Precisely a charge that the rest of us level at the God-botherers. Original sin has very little to do with modern international relations theory.

    “and this leads them to become hypernationalists and warmongers against regimes which do not fit their standards of what is ‘democratic’.”

    Does it? The neoconservatives were not by definition liberal, and yet they themselves were proponents of the “Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy” which emphasised morality in international relations. They were advocating for war against Iraq for years. Rumsfeld demanded a first-strike plan for Iraq a mere six hours after 9/11.

    “And it is simply not true that democratic regimes don’t go to war with each other, and I’m not talking plebiscitary dictatorships or ‘democratic centralist’ regimes either. The War of 1812 was a case in which one democratic nation declared war on another. So was the Six-Day War. So were the conflicts in former Yugoslavia.”

    So you change the parameters to suit your view. Besides, a clutch of minor examples do not immediately establish a cause-and-effect paradigm or in fact, any kind of correlation. And you will note that I said “theory” rather than “proven fact” I’m playing devil’s advocate here. Sorry if a mention of the devil upsets you.

    “Of course, I agree with you that international-relations realism has definite limitations, and that there should be some normative dimension to our foreign policy.”

    And how woul;d you establish that? And when you say “our”, mprecisely who do you mean?

    “That said, realists have been fairly consistently on the side of the angels, coming down against prolonged and disproportionate interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.”

    Oh certainly, the Realist anti-intervention bias has EVERYTHING to do with them seeing themselves as angels. /Sarcasm. Realists are the most state-centric academics and analysts you will find. “States have the monopoly on violence within their borders” – a principal tenet of their doctrine. They may choose not to intervene in another state, but please, don’t pretend for a moment they are doing it for the sake of some higher morality or because they believe that intervention is somehow “unangelic”. If a realist chooses not to intervene, it’s because he or she doesn’t believe that intervention serves their interests.

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  13. To Narsf:
    your last paragraph seems to aptly describe the CCP.

    “non intervention” is merely a means to an end (self interest), just as “intervention” can be another means to a similar end. Pursuit of self interest, in and of itself, needn’t be a morally good or bad thing. Likewise, the means, be it intervention or non-intervention, can’t be arbitrarily pegged as good or bad morally either. That morality score-keeping can only be arrived at by looking at the means and the ends on a case-by-case basis.

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  14. Ah! A smart person! I do wish you wouldn’t engage CM so much on Richard’s blog though. The trick with WuMao is to simply mock them or ignore them, they lose their power that way.

    Yes, Realism is a theory that applies to the CCP more than any other. They are always interest-based in every international dealing. I’ve had a number of articles published on the subject (won’t link to them, they’ll find out my real name) of the “Doctrine of Indifference” of the CCP. If we only judge on ends, then they are a highly “moral” regime. But really, the execution of policy leaves much to be desired “morally”.

    I thoroughly reject morality in foreign policy, however, I really don’t feel it has any place. If you look at the so-called “CNN Effect” most of the “morally right” outputs fall into two camps: 1) Palliative attempts to quell domestic outrage/concern, no real change to policy (2) Interest-based opportunism that arises unexpecteedly, but had formed a part of eventual grand strategy. Humanitarian missions fall into (1) and things like Libya into (2) – NATO had been holding a grudge against Gaddaffi, they were happy to jump at the chance to get what they wanted.

    Morals are relative, remember. Take a state-centric approach to IR and non-interference is moral…

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  15. I’m not one to navel-gaze excessively. On many levels, I agree that morals are relative, particularly in the sense of “it depends on who you’re asking”. On the other hand, I wonder if there are some aspects that can be thought of as being more absolute (intentionally ambiguous there, combining a relative and a superlative). Take South Sudan for instance. China didn’t intervene, and that was fantastically moral when it comes to her access to oil and the health of her investment. Yet her fantastic moral display was a bystander to genocide and unspeakable human atrocities, which by many other metrics would be less than moral. The difficult part is how to square those 2 perspectives in an objective manner.

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  16. The way to reconsile it is realism – It’s in my interest not to intervene, therefore I don’t intervene. The people in other states are not my concern.

    Sad, but true.

    Of course, this ignores the effects of trans-national civil society on relations, but pobody’s nerfect.

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  17. I guess this is what my question boils down to: China sees it as moral; others see it as not. So which is it? Both? Neither? Is there an objective metric by which such things can be judged?

    My inkling is there probably isn’t one. So what it comes down to is that any one entity will do what they think is moral. Or worse yet, they will consider what they do to be moral. And if that’s the case, “morality” becomes nothing more than a subjugated concept. If that’s what “realism” is, then I don’t think I have much time for it.

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