Can US contain flap over dissident, before Hillary Clinton gets to China?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a high-level entourage are set to arrive in Beijing Thursday for economic and security talks with China. The US custody of Chinese dissident Chen Guangchen jeopardizes that meeting, but some analysts say it's likely to proceed regardless.

Vincent Thian/AP
A Chinese paramilitary police officer stands guard at the entrance of the US Embassy in Beijing, Sunday. Chen Guangcheng, a blind legal activist who escaped house arrest, is under the protection of American officials, activists said Saturday, creating a diplomatic dilemma for the US and China days ahead of a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton no doubt hopes the diplomatically delicate case of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who escaped house arrest and then sought refuge with US authorities in Beijing, can be resolved before she and a high-level entourage including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner arrive in the Chinese capital Thursday.

Both American and Chinese officials are tight-lipped on their deliberations over the rights advocate, whose treatment has figured prominently in official Western protests of China’s human rights record. Mr. Chen, blind since childhood, is a self-taught legal authority and critic of the forced abortions he exposed through risky investigations.

At the White House on Monday, President Obama said during a press conference that he was "aware" of the Chen case but would not say how the US will treat Chen's case. He suggested, however, that the issue of human rights in China would come up in this week's talks, as it always does with Beijing, not only because "it is the right thing to do" but also because "we think China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalizes its own system." 

While everything suggests both countries prefer to see the Chen matter resolved soon so that the two days of high-level security and economic talks can proceed, the complexity of a case like Chen’s could make a quick fix impossible.

“My sense is that both sides for their own reasons think this has come up at a very inopportune time,” says David Lampton, director of Chinese studies at The Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington. “But as much as both sides might hope it could be quickly resolved, the complications of this case and the priorities each side is going to have are likely to mean this will take some time.”

Referring to other cases of Chinese dissidents, Dr. Lampton adds, “If past experience is any indication, then we ought to be thinking in terms of weeks, not days” before a resolution is reached.

The State Department rushed Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell to Beijing Sunday to take up the Chen case with Chinese officials, underscoring the urgency for the US of keeping the annual “strategic and economic dialogue” between the two countries on track. The US has not publicly confirmed that Chen is in the hands of US authorities. But diplomatic sources confirm that he is under US protection.  

The context for the security and economic talks was fraught with tensions even before Chen last week somehow evaded guards surrounding his house in a rural area and, according to fellow dissidents, made his way to US authorities. The US is considering a new round of arms sales to Taiwan despite Chinese opposition, and the US and China each faces domestic political turbulence that could spill over into bilateral relations.

The Chinese are set for a political transition later this year, and President Obama is accused by Mitt Romney, presumed to be his Republican opponent in the November presidential election, of being weak toward China – particularly on economic issues.

The Chen case will revive an internal debate in China over the US, with some factions arguing it offers further proof of a dangerous American tendency to get involved in China’s domestic issues, Lampton says.

“They will have to have their internal debate on” the Chen case, Lampton says, “and there will be suggestions that the US is again interfering in Chinese affairs,” he adds. “That’s going to make things more difficult.”

Still, the importance of the talks to both sides means they are all but certain to proceed – not because anyone was anticipating any major progress or announcements even before the Chen affair, but because both sides share the goal of keeping their turbulence-prone bilateral relationship from deteriorating.

Even if the Chen case is unresolved by Thursday, “I can hear both sides issuing a statement that says, ‘The case of Mr. Chen is under appropriate deliberation by both governments, and we will focus on the issues that we are appropriately focused on in our talks,’ ” Lampton says.

Chen’s fellow dissidents initially reported that Chen did not want to leave China as a political refugee, but rather sought to remain in the country at a critical moment to continue advocating the political rights of the Chinese people. But by Monday, some Chinese dissidents were suggesting that Chen has realized that demand may be impossible, and has shifted to negotiating the timing and conditions of his departure and the fate of his family.

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