WASHINGTON — Chen Guangcheng has been on Rep. Chris Smith’s radar for years, though the New Jersey Republican said he never met the blind, self-taught Chinese human-rights lawyer.
Thus, on May 2, after the activist suddenly signaled his desire for asylum in the United States, Smith echoed the demands of a chorus of voices calling for the Obama administration to help “ensure that Chen Guangcheng, his family members and all those who have helped him are removed from harm’s way and do not suffer any further abuse or retaliation for Chen’s bold and courageous efforts to save his family and improve human rights for all in China.”
Chen has fought the abuses of China’s one-child-per-couple policy, including forced abortions and sterilizations. As he was being treated in a Beijing hospital after leaving the U.S. Embassy there, Smith called an emergency hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on the People’s Republic of China, a congressionally mandated, bipartisan panel, which he heads. And Chen called in to the May 3 hearing.
In his phone call, Chen repeated his request for asylum. Speaking through an interpreter to a hushed audience of House and Senate members, human-rights activists and media, Chen said he feared for the lives of his family members.
According to his translator, former Chinese prisoner Bob Fu, the founder and president of China Aid, Chen said, “I want to meet with Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton. I hope I can get more help from her. I also want to thank her face-to-face. I really feared for my other family members’ lives.”
Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner were on a high-level visit to Beijing at the time.
Chen reported that a profusion of video cameras and an electric fence had been established at his rural home in Shandong Province, some 400 miles to the southeast. He said he wanted “to make the request to have my freedom of travel guaranteed,” and he told Smith that he wanted to come to the United States with his family.
China’s foreign ministry said Chen could apply to study abroad, just as any other Chinese citizen could, and, on May 8, The Financial Times reported that the Chinese government has begun to help Chen prepare for leaving the country.
At Smith’s hearing, “Recent Developments and History of the Chen Guangcheng Case,” Chen said he had not seen close relatives since leaving the U.S. Embassy, although at the hospital he was reunited with his wife and children.
Smith, who also leads the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, told Chen: “You have a panel of people who have just testified on your behalf, all of whom deeply, deeply care about you and your family, as well as those who helped you. I think the word is getting out — and there are members of national and international press here — that your case is the test, the test, of Chinese commitment to protect you, which they’ve given — we’re very dubious about those assurances — but also the test of the United States as to whether or not human rights really do matter.”
The hearing drew a slew of experts and activists, including Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch; T. Kumar, director of International Advocacy for Amnesty International; Wang Xuezhen, a human-rights advocate; Yaxue Cao, a human-rights advocate and blogger; Michael Horowitz, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C. research center; and Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.
In his statement, China Aid’s Bob Fu stated: “The developments in this Chen Guangcheng incident have shown the world that the Chinese communist government is above the law, wantonly abusing an honest and law-abiding citizen.”
“At the same time, everyone has seen the inestimable conscience of Chen Guangcheng, his courageous fight for justice and human rights, and his indestructible hope. These events have also shown the world that this authoritarian regime, which has engaged in a protracted struggle for the conscience of a blind man, has been defeated,” said Fu.
At the May 3 hearing, Smith expressed relief that Chen had escaped his home confinement and reached the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. “Yet it is with equally great concern that I convene this hearing,” he added. “Having been handed over to Chinese officials by American diplomats yesterday, Chen, his wife, Yuan, and the rest of his family and friends appear to be in significant danger. The eyes of the world are watching.”
Also on May 3, Chen told journalists in Beijing that U.S. officials had not done enough to advocate on his behalf or to make human rights a key part of U.S.-China relations.
But as she headed into high-level talks with Chinese officials, Clinton insisted: “As part of our dialogue, the U.S. raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” If Beijing respects those rights, she said, it will be a “stronger partner” for Washington.
During a May 1 interview, Smith called Chen’s daring escape from house arrest — days before Clinton’s arrival — a “brilliant stroke, though I am not sure if Chen timed it for when the U.S. diplomats were in Beijing.”
But in a day with many twists and turns, fresh reports circulated that Chen had decided to seek political asylum after concluding that his safety and that of his family could not be secured in China.
By then, Clinton had already released a statement confirming the outlines of the reported agreement with the Chinese government.
Clinton said she was “pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng’s stay and departure from the U.S. Embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values. I was glad to have the chance to speak with him today and congratulate him on being reunited with his wife and children.
“Mr. Chen has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment.”
She stressed, “Making this commitment a reality is the next crucial test.”
On May 2, news bureaus in Beijing reported that Chen spent six days in the U.S. Embassy and that he received assistance from American officials, in part because of “exceptional circumstances, including his disability.” Reportedly, his stay was understood to be “temporary.”
Soon after Chen’s departure from the embassy, the Chinese government attacked the U.S. officials’ decision to offer the activist refuge.
Before Chen signaled his desire to seek asylum, Steven Mosher, the first U.S. scholar to document the Chinese Communist Party’s one-child policy, expressed concern about whether Chinese authorities would actually fulfill the pledges they reportedly made to Chen.
“I applaud him for wanting to stay in China and fight the system. God help him,” said Mosher, who heads the Virginia-based Population Research Institute.
Now that Chen has broached the possibility of political asylum, his international visibility could pose serious problems for U.S.-China relations. Smith and other activists will keep up the pressure on the White House, but President Barack Obama has shown no desire, so far, to directly intervene in the crisis.
On April 30, amid media speculation about Chen’s possible arrival at the U.S. Embassy, Obama defended his administration’s parallel strategy for engaging China on strategic issues while also prodding party leaders on human-rights concerns.
At a White House press conference, the president insisted that “every time we meet with China the issue of human rights comes up,” but in recent public appearances he has refused to directly comment on Chen’s case.
Yet activists and China experts who back Chen have challenged the president’s public stance.
“The Obama administration regards Chen as a speed bump on the ‘Clinton-Geithner Road Show to China,’” charged Mosher. “They are wrong. His fate is far more important than hawking American treasury bonds. Remember: The one-child policy has touched the lives of every person in China. He may be the spark that starts a prairie fire.”
Harry Wu, executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation and an expert on China’s one-child policy, knows Chen and deeply admires the activist.
“Chen spoke out and didn’t want to give up his campaign against the one-child policy. He is a kind of model for the Chinese, and his story tells the world about what is still going on in China for many years,” said Wu during a telephone interview.
In Wu’s judgment, the U.S. government, as well as many American companies with holdings in China — where the state must approve all foreign investments — have skirted the taboo subject of forced abortions and sterilizations, let alone the more predictable violations of political rights that characterize most one-party communist regimes.
However, U.S. companies like Apple have begun to respond to Internet-generated campaigns to improve work conditions in China. Indeed, Chen’s global visibility underscores the transformative impact of information technologies that magnify his campaign to expose the contradictions between the party’s sanitized public image and the grim reality of routine political controls.
When reports of Chen’s escape first made headlines, Smith dashed off a letter to Clinton April 27, urging her to help secure “the safety and well-being of Mr. Chen’s family members, who continue to be held under home confinement, as well as those who have assisted him.”
“The fact that government officials have repeatedly and severely beaten Mr. Chen, his wife and his mother during his house arrest … gives rise to justifiable reports that his family members and others associated with him are now in danger,” wrote Smith. The letter was released on April 30.
Two days later, foreign news bureaus in Beijing and human-rights groups published unconfirmed reports that Chen’s family members, along with activists known to have facilitated his improbable escape, had been detained by Chinese authorities.
During a May 1 interview, Smith noted that in past years he had aired concerns about Chen’s plight in a variety of forums, such as at a November 2011 House subcommittee hearing focused on the government’s brutal treatment of him during his house arrest.
But Smith expressed frustration with the Obama administration’s approach to human-rights issues in China, especially the ongoing enforcement of the one-child policy by state and local authorities.
“There is zero tolerance for people who speak out against this policy, yet this issue is as bad as it has ever been. For a while, there was some public-relations effort suggesting that the policy has been relaxed, especially in Shanghai. But, more recently, the international community has not tried to argue that things have improved.”
In September 2011, Smith led another House subcommittee hearing, “China’s One-Child Policy: The Government’s Massive Crime Against Women and Unborn Babies,” where Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, testified that Chen “amassed evidence that 130,000 forced abortions and involuntary sterilizations were performed on women in Linyi County, Shandong Province, in a single year.”
Asked to evaluate President Obama’s willingness to back up cautious public statements on Chinese human-rights issues with strong actions, Smith said, “If there was a grade below F, I would give it to the administration.”
Back in January 2011, when Chinese President Hu Jintao participated in a joint press conference with Obama during a state visit to Washington, a reporter asked about the status of human rights in China, and Obama stepped in to deflect the embarrassing question, suggesting that such concerns were less relevant in China.
The Washington Post editorial page criticized the president’s comments, asserting that he offered “perfunctory” excuses for Beijing and appeared to shrug off American responsibility for advancing human rights in China.
In 2009, when Clinton made her first trip to Beijing, she also stirred controversy by appearing to downgrade human-rights concerns. Responding to a reporter’s question about her plans for raising the issue with Chinese authorities, she replied, “We have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate-change crisis and the security crisis.”
“If Chen is just an irritant to this administration, shame on them,” said Smith. “Chen is the Lech Walesa of China.”
But there’s no denying that this remains a high-wire moment for the Obama administration. In an election year, said Steve Mosher, “the last thing Obama wants is to receive vague assurances from the Chinese government that Chen will be safe, only for the public to learn that he has been thrown in the back of a sedan never to be seen again.”