Chinese puzzle


REMARKABLY, THE whereabouts and future of a blind, self-educated, legal advocate from a Shandong province village in eastern China have now become elements in the political dynamics in, and between, the world’s two great powers, China and the US. Chen Guangcheng’s dramatic escape from effective house arrest and his flight to what is still presumed to be the US embassy in Beijing have thrilled supporters and human rights activists worldwide, but could hardly have come at a more sensitive moment for both countries.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, arriving today in Beijing for the annual talks in the two countries’ “Strategic and Economic Dialogue”, will be acutely aware that US-China relations will take a nosedive if she champions Chen’s case too publicly, while Mitt Romney has already made her silence a US election issue by insisting on a vigorous public defence of the dissident.

In China, the spectacular incompetence of the police in allowing Chen to escape will again inevitably embarrass domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang ahead of the 18th party congress where a major renewal of leadership is due to take place. Zhou is already vulnerable over his support for now-disgraced Chonqing party chief Bo Xilai – not to mention the associated flight in February, also into a US diplomatic compound, of the city’s former police chief, Wang Lijun. And although Zhou is due to retire at the party congress, his isolation in the leadership will certainly weaken proteges whose cause he might have championed and the relative position of the security apparatus against reformers.

Both sides have an interest in closure of the Chen issue quickly, and the arrival of a senior US diplomat in Beijing on Sunday to discuss it – although Washington is still not acknowledging he is in its care – will probably lead to a rapid agreement to move Chen and his family to the US for “medical” or similar reasons.

But Chen has said he would prefer to stay in China, and his post-escape Facebook message to the leadership was about protection of his family from harassment rather than any broader political critique or desire to leave. His right to stay on, unmolested, and the release of his family and those who aided his flight, is what should be on the agenda of the US-China talks. It would undoubtedly be more difficult for the latter – certain to lose face if seen to be providing the US with assurances about one of its own citizens. But China also has much to lose if it were to allow its relationship with the US to go into reverse – Beijing’s bluff needs to be called.