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US, China turn page on 'blind activist' saga

Publication Date : 06-05-2012


After a political fallout, the US and China struck to resolve a diplomatic crisis over blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng


Despite lingering questions, analysts here say they expect a new agreement, which United States and Chinese officials struck to resolve a diplomatic crisis over blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, to be honoured in the weeks ahead.

Neither side has any incentive to relitigate the case, given the considerable domestic and international political fallout they have already suffered from the episode in the past week, the experts added.

"There could be some wrinkles along the way, and it might take a month or two to get (Chen) to New York, but I think it's going to happen," said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Added Professor Yang Dali of the University of Chicago: "All sides have an interest in seeing the case resolved and not becoming captive to other people or political interest groups.

"And contrary to media reports, the Chinese government actually has a greater interest in the resolution of this case because they don't want Chen to become a showcase of the practices that have been criticised around the world."

Still, the next steps in the extraordinary saga are far from clear. According to a statement released by the US State Department last Friday, hours after the annual US-China strategic talks had wrapped up, Chen has been offered a fellowship at an American university where he would be able to bring along his wife and two children.

Beijing would accept the dissident's applications for passports, and Washington would give "priority attention" to the visa requests.

However, the statement gave no indication as to when the process might begin. Supporters of Chen also pointed out that there did not appear to be a written agreement, and the deal seemed to rest on a private understanding between the two governments.

It is also unclear what assurances, if any, have been negotiated for the safety of Chen's extended family and supporters, who cannot travel with him.

The trickiest questions are the "what ifs". For instance, what happens when Chen, who has indicated that he does not want political asylum in the US, decides to return to China?

If he changes his mind again in the coming days, what then? The first deal that was struck by the diplomats - one that would allow the dissident to study law in the north-eastern Chinese city of Tianjin - fell apart after Chen had a change of heart due to fears over his family's safety.

Despite a long list of unanswered questions, top US diplomat Hillary Clinton told reporters before departing Beijing that she had been "encouraged by the progress' on the case. "But there is more work to do, so we will stay engaged as this moves forward," she added.

For now, experts say they did not detect any permanent damage to bilateral ties as a result of the week-long diplomatic stand-off. But it is apparent that ties are under growing strain from a host of familiar economic and geopolitical grievances, as well as unforeseen events like Chen's dash to the US Embassy.

Professor David Lampton of the Johns Hopkins University said: "The US-China relationship is overloaded...sort of like a truck with bad rear suspension with more and more (weight) being loaded on.

"This is probably, in its totality, the most complicated period I've seen in the relationship since 1989, and in some ways perhaps even more complicated."

But if there is a silver lining in the latest episode, it is that cooler heads in both countries prevailed, and neither side gave in to domestic pressures for brinkmanship. They went ahead with their annual strategic talks despite the diplomatic tension, and top leaders kept their eyes firmly on the big picture.

Clinton reminded reporters at a press conference last Friday: "(What) the US and China are trying to do is to write a new answer to the age-old question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet.

"We believe that neither of us can afford to keep looking at the world through old lenses, whether it's the legacy of imperialism, the Cold War, or balance-of-power politics. Zero-sum thinking will lead to negative-sum results."

Her counterpart at the strategic talks, Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo, echoed similar sentiments, noting that China and the US must break the so-called "historical fate" that binds big powers to inevitable conflict.

"We are living in the 21st century, so we should be smarter than our predecessors in the search for new answers to the age-old question of how big powers get along," he added.

But with imminent leadership changes in China and elections in the US, it appears that more questions than answers will be coming up in the next few months.


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