Two sides letting a dissident down
It was a year ago this week that blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped from illegal home detention in his native village in Shandong province and made his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where he was given shelter. After days of intense negotiations between senior U.S. and Chinese officials, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a deal was struck under which Chen left the embassy. A senior U.S. official told reporters that among the commitments made by Chinese officials was that they would “investigate reported extra-legal activities committed by local Shandong authorities against Mr. Chen and his family.”
Clinton said that “making (China’s) commitments a reality is the next crucial task” and pledged that “the United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Chen and his family in the days, weeks and years ahead.”
Chen, who during the past year moved to New York to study at New York University, told us Thursday that, in his view, neither side has kept its word. Not only did Chinese authorities fail to investigate the abuses against him and his family but charges were also brought against his nephew, Chen Kegui, who grabbed a knife to defend himself when plainclothes government thugs broke into his home last April and assaulted him. In November, he was sentenced to 39 months in prison after a three-hour trial.
Chen says local prosecutors have told his sister-in-law, Ren Zongju, and a brother, Chen Guangjun, that they will also be criminally charged. This week, gangs of thugs marked the anniversary of Chen’s escape by attacking the homes of the Chen family with bricks and beer bottles, vandalizing their cars and putting up posters accusing them of treason. Several Chen supporters who attempted to travel to the village were assaulted. Dead ducks and chickens were piled outside one family’s door, a gesture connected to China’s recent bird flu outbreak.
As for the Obama administration, Chen says he is not aware of any high-level follow-up on his family’s persecution. “The U.S. government has tended to be quiet and keep a distance,” he told us through a translator. “This also is telling.” Added his wife, Yuan Weijing: “No one is holding China accountable for what they agreed.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry told Congress last week that he had raised the treatment of Chen’s nephew and family “at the highest level” during his visit to China this month, and we’re told that another senior official intervened with Beijing this week. State has issued occasional public statements about Chen. On April 10, after he testified at a congressional hearing about the harassment of his family, a spokesman responded to a question by saying that the administration was “deeply concerned” about the abuse.
Kerry also said in Beijing that he wanted to build a “special relationship” between the United States and China — a term usually reserved for the U.S. bond with Britain. Of course, it’s appropriate for Kerry and other administration officials to foster a cooperative relationship with Beijing wherever possible. But no “special relationship” is possible if China does not keep the promises it makes — or if the United States does not honor its commitments to people like Chen.