China's deal for Chen Guangcheng: latest signal of desire for better US ties

China’s deal to allow blind dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng to exit the country to study in the US, the Bo Xiliai purge, successful bilateral talks with the US, and other developments indicate that Beijing may be committed to some reforms – and warming relations with Washington.

US Embassy Beijing Press Office/AP/File
Blind lawyer and Chinese dissident and activist Chen Guangcheng locks hands with US Ambassador to China Gary Locke at a hospital in Beijing May 2. Chen said Tuesday he was confident that Beijing would hold up its end of a tentative deal to let him study overseas. Op-ed contributor Albert L. Weeks says China's decision to '[allow] the Obama administration some space for 'victory' on the Chen issue' may have stemmed from the upcoming presidential election since 'Beijing would not relish a change in administration in Washington.'

China’s granting permission for blind dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng to exit the country to study law at New York University, plus other developments, indicate that Beijing may now be committed to improving relations with the United States. At least in the short term.

Part of the Chinese motivation to improve relations may stem from the upcoming presidential election in the US. Beijing would not relish a change in administration in Washington that meant all-out adoption of a Cold War policy by incoming conservative hawks. The reaction of Republican leaders to the Chen affair, as voiced in early May in no uncertain terms by the top candidate, Mitt Romney, was surely noted ruefully by the perceptive rulers in Beijing.

Allowing the Obama administration some space for “victory” on the Chen issue would earn President Obama some domestic favor, or at least avoid the accusation that he has weakly acquiesced to China and its human rights abuses in Mr. Chen’s case.

In addition to Beijing’s relative cooperation with Chen, the following new developments seem to presage a new Chinese posture of rapprochement.

The latest far-ranging talks between China and the US appear to have gone smoothly. They took place in Beijing last week between a large American delegation led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their Chinese partners. A smiling President Hu Jintao, together with heir-apparent Xi Jinping, showed up at the meetings, although the talks had not included Mr. Hu’s head-of-state counterpart, Mr. Obama.

There were positive signs that these bilateral discussions could lead to better Sino-American relations on several fronts: political, economic, and military. The Chinese leadership, displaying unusual friendliness, showed that Zhongnanhai, the “Chinese Kremlin,” had obviously appreciated the manner in which US officials had handled the sensitive Bo Xilai affair.

In February, the US consulate in Chengdu had obligingly handed over Wang Lijun, the “defecting,” powerful, and well-informed Chongqing police chief. Mr. Wang had told American officials that he feared for his life from Bo Xilai’s leadership, which Wang was exposing as deeply corrupt.

The American consulate, after all, could have used Wang to embarrass the top Chinese leadership by publishing transcripts of what he told the Americans. Yet the consulate declined to do so. Instead, the US officials immediately turned Wang over to the Chinese authorities. And Mr. Bo was soon ousted.

Beijing’s handling of the Bo affair itself indicates a more reform-minded leadership, with great possible openness to warmer US relations.

Chinese media continue to reprint the Chinese leaders’ revealing instructions to Communist Party and government officials following the Bo purge. These orders include promises to rid the lower party and government organs of corruption and nepotism; urge the People’s Republic of China at all levels to adopt the standards of “modern states” toward the “rule of law.” This is opposed to what a party statement refers candidly to as “China’s thousands of years of ‘rule by man’.”

While strict censorship of China’s Internet prevailed during the Chen affair, the Chinese leadership nevertheless showed a human face with regard to Chen, his wife, and children. In the final days of the family’s stay in the Beijing hospital, the government provided them with medical care, fresh clothing, a cake for the son’s birthday, and so on. While this was obviously done “for show,” it seemed to indicate a regime posture of accommodation rather than confrontation.

Of course, observers must place the impending warming of Chinese relations with America in context of the long-term, overarching policy initiated in 1978 by the former monumental leader of reform in China, Deng Xiaoping.

Deng, whose tradition is inscribed in the PRC Constitution along with Mao’s, repeatedly advised succeeding generations of top leaders to show restraint in Beijing’s domestic and foreign policy. He advised his successors to show moderation toward America and the West and to soft-pedal Communist “revolutionism.”

This stance, he indicated, was absolutely necessary in order for China to “turn outward” and thereby modernize itself – with, of course, Western help. It seems that China’s leaders may be beginning to follow Deng’s advice. 

Albert L. Weeks, professor emeritus of international affairs at New York University, is the author of several books on world affairs.

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