The Chen Guangcheng affair is an object lesson in why the US government shouldn’t stick its nose in other nations’ business, a veritable textbook case illustrating why and how "democracy promotion" can backfire and hurt our interests abroad.
Chen, the "barefoot lawyer" who has spent years fighting China’s forced abortion and sterilization policies, could not be a more sympathetic figure: to begin with, he’s blind, a detail that lends pathos to the demands of the "human rights" crowd that the US intervene more energetically in getting Chen and his family out of China. Secondly, his career as a "barefoot lawyer," utilizing the thin façade of China’s "legal" system to oppose policies Americans find unimaginably barbaric, puts the lie to the semi-official fiction of China as a nation in transition from dictatorship to democracy – a view shared by China "experts" who hail the trend toward "collective leadership" in Beijing as an indication of liberalization. Western policy wonks and reporters touted the ouster of the "Maoist" Bo Xilai as a decisive shift away from authoritarianism and toward the "rule of law," only to find this illusion cruelly crushed by Chen’s dramatic escape and his arrival at the doors of our embassy in Beijing.
The US government has wanted to have it both ways: to "engage" the Chinese leadership while getting on its high horse and pontificating on the primacy of "human rights." Chen hasn’t let them get away with it. That is why Washington is scrambling, frantic to right the apple cart the blind activist has rudely upended: they deny he was forced to leave the embassy, deny he was anything other than "joyful" about departing, and deny abandoning him to an uncertain fate. When they made what they thought was an agreement with the Chinese – even touting how willing the authorities were to engage in "dialogue" over such a sensitive matter – there is no doubt they really believed the deal was sealed. Unfortunately for them – and for Chen — they were wrong, and US officials are now in the untenable position of negotiating not only with the Chinese regime but also with Chen, caught in the middle of a conundrum with no way out.
How did the State Department get it so wrong?
This incident underscores, above all, the question of just who is in charge in China. The typical Western view is that China is a totalitarian dictatorship, ruled with an iron fist from Beijing, where the central leadership has taken on a "reformist" cast and is slowly but surely leading the world’s most populous nation into modernity and, presumably, a more "democratic" future. Yet the reality is that China is far from monolithic: authority is widely dispersed simply because the country is too big, too complex, and too rambunctious to be effectively run from a central location. The coastal cities are bastions of liberality, while the inland provinces – to say nothing of China’s "wild West" – are more conservative, and historically resistant to Beijing’s edicts. This "red-blue" division is reflected in the terms of the deal that was to have allowed Chen and his family to move from isolated Shandong province, where party officials had imprisoned him, to the city of Tianjin, a city firmly in the "blue" zone, about forty minutes from Beijing.
Chen was offered seven alternative places to relocate: why did he choose Tianjin? Because the city is run directly by the central authorities in Beijing, who are unlikely to have persecuted him quite so directly as the yahoos in Shandong – where local party leaders have reportedly threatened to beat Chen’s wife to death. The point being that the authorities in Beijing, who supposedly lord it over a nation prostrate at their feet, cannot guarantee against such an abuse occurring — simply because their authority over Chen’s farflung home province is uncertain, at best.
The image of China as a model of Confucian stability, which the regime has been eager to project, has been taken up by our policy wonks, by Western reporters, by this administration, and by economic actors who have an interest in maintaining the fiction of China as a place in which the West can safely invest. Under the carefully orchestrated ministrations of the "reformist" leadership, we are told, the "rule of law" is supposedly gaining a foothold in the land of Mao, and China – like Japan, and the other "Asian tigers" – is slowly becoming integrated with the West. Recent events in China, however, are rapidly refuting this Pollyanna-ish balderdash.
The idea that the "reformists" are warm and cuddly creatures who want only to become more like us has been debunked by the Chen Guangcheng incident. Instead of considering the matter closed, the Chinese government has issued an official declaration denouncing US interference in China’s internal affairs, a transgression for which they are now demanding an apology (!). Chen, on the other hand, is telling the international news media – which apparently has virtually unlimited access to him – American officials practically pushed him out the door, and is demanding to be taken to the US on Hillary Clinton’s plane. His latest stunt is to call in to a US congressional hearing on the subject and plead for immediate transport to America for himself and his family. (Does anyone else find it odd that the Chinese authorities, who block the internet at the drop of a hat, and monitor all communications, is allowing Chen access to a phone so he can broadcast his plight to the American Congress?)
By allowing themselves to get in the middle of this, the US government has shown that it has no understanding of what is happening in China at the present moment. The biggest fear of China’s current leadership – the heirs of the reformist Deng Xiaoping – is that another massive populist upsurge, similar to the Cultural Revolution, will envelope the country in "chaos." That is why they moved to crush Bo Xilai, who had the audacity to revive some Maoist era slogans in an attempt to hold his "Chongqing model" up as an example for the nation. The headlong rush to "modernization" and "reform" has created glaring inequities and in many ways resembles the free-for-all that accompanied the dismantling of the Soviet state: a new class of Chinese oligarchs, just as audacious — and rapacious — as their Russian cousins, has arisen and is seeking to preserve and legitimize its power.
Their hold on power is precarious, and this is a fact China’s elites are acutely aware of: any attempt to push them beyond the real limits of their authority reveals the brittleness of their rule. Beijing must walk a careful line between Washington and Shandong – because the slightest misstep is likely to awaken the sleeping giant of Chinese nationalism, and resentment of the oligarchy, a specter the reformists greatly fear.
Chen is certainly a sympathetic figure in the West: no one can doubt his heroism in the face of so much repression. Yet within China, the view of the blind activist is undoubtedly a bit more ambiguous. To imagine how ordinary Chinese regard Chen, picture what would happen here in the US if, say, Bradley Manning escaped from confinement and sought asylum in the Chinese embassy. As Chinese officials lecture their American counterparts on the subject of "human rights," the average American would no doubt ask: "What business is it of theirs?" Resentment of China’s presumptuousness, rather than support for Manning, would dominate the American discourse – and dictate the American response.
This incident reinforces my theory of "libertarian realism" – that a nation’s foreign policy, whether it be an ostensible democracy or an outright dictatorship, is decisively determined by internal politics rather than any external factors. The Chinese can no more afford to surrender their sovereignty in this matter than the US could afford to do the same in similar circumstances. The irony of our "human rights"-oriented foreign policy is that our efforts to impose "freedom" on faraway peoples inevitably boomerang – and wind up achieving the exact opposite of their intended effect.
Left to itself, the Chinese Communist Party and its sclerotic leadership would wither on the vine, and the current regime would face a crisis similar to that which led to the breakup of the old Soviet empire. The ruling ideology of the "Chinese road to socialism," as handed down by the departed Deng, has given birth to a system of unparalleled corruption and cronyism that surpasses even that which took hold in Yeltsin’s Russia. The backlash against this development has been building for some time: the rise of labor unrest in this supposedly totalitarian state, and local demonstrations against the government for various abuses, signal a sea change occurring underneath the ostensibly placid surface of Chinese society.
The Uighur rebellion in Xinjiang province of a few years ago, put down with brutal force, points to another aspect of the regime’s underlying weakness: China’s ethnic diversity, and the undercurrent of resentment against ethnic Han domination. Although some 90 percent of the population are Han, the other ten percent are geographically concentrated in the west, to the north, and in the south. In China’s long history, it has been disunited more than it has been a unitary state, with ethno-linguistic differences playing a large role in national politics.
The threat of localism, exacerbated by growing populist hostility to the "princelings" of Beijing, represents a real challenge to the central leadership, which is itself riven with political and personal rivalries. The regime has time and again utilized the spirit of a resurgent Chinese nationalism to reinforce its authority and legitimize its rule. Yet they must tread carefully in this region, lest they remind people of the unprecedented foreign penetration of China under their rule.
The sheer stupidity of the US State Department has been taken full advantage of by all the worst people on earth: by the Chinese authorities, to begin with, who have scored points with a populace increasingly resentful of their excesses, and by the Republicans, who are accusing the Obama administration of kowtowing to the Chinese reds. The "human rights" liberals, echoing the Chinese dissident community abroad, is adding to the din. You’ll recall that the one thing the union-centered "progressive" movement and the neocons have always agreed on is the evil of all things Chinese, from their inexpensive well-made products to Beijing’s unwillingness to isolate Iran and otherwise bend to Washington’s diktat. The protectionist-interventionist anti-Chinese "popular front," running the gamut from the union bosses to the House Republican caucus, is ready for a second act.
The folly of a "human rights"-driven foreign policy is here revealed for all to see. By making promises we can’t possibly keep, we hurt the people we are supposedly trying to help – and help tyrants stay in power. One could argue that this is the result desired by our government all along, but even I’m not yet cynical enough to make that case.