Bloomberg News

Chen Escape Won't Affect Geithner, Clinton China Trip

April 29, 2012

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner have no plans to cancel their trip to China, according to a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity, amid reports the U.S. is protecting a fugitive Chinese activist.

Last week, legal activist Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest in Shandong province, where he had been held since his release from prison in September 2010, Midland, Texas-based ChinaAid, a U.S.-based human rights group, reported.

Clinton and Geithner are due to arrive in Beijing for annual talks May 3-4. The trip will go forward, the State Department official said yesterday, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“This all looks to me like a brewing, perfect-storm test for relations,” said Chris Johnson, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and former senior China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. The annual talks, which “substantively, probably would have been inconsequential, suddenly become the most important test for Sino-U.S. relations for the Obama administration thus far in its tenure.”

Chen, who is blind, is now under U.S. protection in Beijing, and talks are taking place between the U.S. and China about his status, ChinaAid’s founder Bob Fu said in an e-mail yesterday, citing people close to the situation.

‘No Information’

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, speaking at a news conference in Beijing yesterday, said the talks would go ahead as scheduled and he had “no information” about Chen.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell arrived in Beijing today, earlier than his scheduled arrival before the talks, the Associated Press reported. Richard Buangan, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in the Chinese capital, declined to comment on the report when reached by Bloomberg News.

Asked about Chen on “Fox News Sunday,” Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan said “we are working very closely with the individuals involved in this,” and declined further comment.

President Barack Obama has “faced similar situations” in which he’s had to balance human rights and diplomatic issues, and the U.S. government will “find the right way forward,” Brennan said.

Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate to challenge Democrat Obama in the U.S. November elections, urged the U.S. to ensure the protection of Chen and his family. The U.S. “must play a strong role in urging reform in China and supporting those fighting for the freedoms we enjoy,” Romney said in a statement today.

Relations Tested

U.S.-Chinese relations have been tested this year by events including “the Chinese early support for the Assad regime in Syria, North Korea’s satellite launch and a presumed nuclear test, this guy running to the consulate -- it’s just one thing after another,” Johnson said.

Chinese political leaders were already trying to manage a scandal involving U.S. diplomats and a Chinese citizen, Johnson said. Chongqing party leader Bo Xilai lost his Politburo post earlier this month after his wife and an aide were put in custody for suspicion of murdering a British businessman.

The arrests came after Bo’s former police chief, Wang Lijun, had spent a night in February at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, and then left, an event confirmed by both the U.S. and Chinese governments. China’s state-run news agency Xinhua reported that Wang disclosed the murder allegations.

Political Earthquake

“The political earthquake in Beijing this year has been the Bo Xilai affair,” said Ken Lieberthal, head of the Thornton Center for China at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “There are some people in China who I’m sure feel that all of that was a set up by the U.S. government to embarrass the leaders.”

The U.S. government faces “no good solution,” Lieberthal said. “You want to do the right thing by the individual,” yet talking about Chinese abuses “will come across in China to most people as if you are interfering in domestic affairs, seeking to humiliate China, and therefore being folks that are not of goodwill and should not be listened to. So you end up being quite ineffective,” he said.

F-16s to Taiwan

Johnson, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, went on to add the politics behind the consideration being given by the U.S. to selling Taiwan Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT:US) F-16 fighter jets is another nuance to be navigated by the Obama administration.

“When you layer onto the cake as well that the White House sent a letter to Senator Cornyn of Texas noting that they would take a second look at possible new F-16 fighter aircraft sales to Taiwan in order to get Senator Cornyn to lift his hold on the appointment of Mark Lippert as the new assistant secretary of defense for East Asia,” the Geithner-Clinton trip becomes “a very tricky situation,” he said.

The sale of F-16s “warrants serious consideration, given the growing military threat to Taiwan,” Robert Nabors, the White House’s director of legislative affairs, said in a letter to Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, on April 27.

China, which insists that Taiwan be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary, has in the past cut military contacts with the U.S. over American arms sales to the island.

Johnson said the timing of Chen’s escape alone will encourage hardliners to see the event as a “conspiracy to stifle China’s rise” and to adopt the belief “that this was all planned by the U.S.” For the Chinese, that means “they have got to react probably a little more sternly,” he said.

‘Bilateral Mess’

“This could be the biggest bilateral mess that we’ve faced in a very long time,” Johnson said.

A Chinese dissident spent an extended period sheltered inside the U.S. embassy during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, when the Communist Party clashed with pro-democracy students. Fang Lizhi, a physics professor, was housed in the U.S. embassy for 13 months before he left the country for the U.S. He died earlier this month at the age of 76 in Tucson, Arizona.

‘Pivotal Moment’

“This is a pivotal moment for U.S. human rights diplomacy,” Fu said in the e-mail. “Because of Chen’s wide popularity, the Obama administration must stand firmly with him or risk losing credibility as a defender of freedom and the rule of law.”

The U.S. has taken up Chen’s case in the past. Clinton mentioned him in a speech in November, saying the U.S. was “alarmed” by his continued house arrest and calling on China to “embrace a different path.”

ChinaAid’s statement said Fu has been in touch with Chen’s friends and family and was told that Chen wanted to remain in China. He wants “a normal life as a Chinese citizen,” according to the statement.

Chen was jailed for more than four years after helping villagers resist forced abortions, rights groups including the New York-based Human Rights in China say. After his release in September 2010, he and his wife were confined to their home in the village of Dongshigu.

Chen is a self-taught lawyer who was blinded by a fever in infancy, the Associated Press reported. He Peirong, an activist who has led a campaign to free Chen, picked him up and drove him to a “relatively safe place,” the AP quoted her as saying.

Nephew, Brother Detained

Human Rights in China, citing a “knowledgeable source” that it didn’t identify, has said that Chen’s nephew, Chen Kegui, was taken from his home by more than 30 policemen April 27. Chen Guangfu, Chen Guangcheng’s older brother, was taken away a day earlier, the group said in an e-mailed statement.

“It’s a very political year in Beijing -- it is here too - - and they were very anxious to avoid things that would impact negatively on the relationship,” Brookings’ Lieberthal said. He recommended the U.S. “adopt a very low profile on this while trying quietly to negotiate” an exit to a safe haven for Chen and his family.

If the Chinese “can find a face-saving solution that works, that may be of interest to them because, just like the Bo Xilai scandal, they keep wanting to just move on and refocus on the succession,” Johnson said.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Michael Forsythe in Beijing at mforsythe@bloomberg.net; Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington at ilakshmanan@bloomberg.net; Alexander Kowalski in New York at akowalski13@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net


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