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Cool heads rule in Beijing drama

Publication Date : 08-05-2012

 

The case of the blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng could well have trapped China and the United States in a test of strength from which neither side would have found it easy to back down. A prolonged confrontation might have ensued if the incident had happened at a time when China was not as self-confident and America habitually acted out of a sense of all-knowing might. The way the impasse was resolved is a development to be thankful for, as it might be something of a full-dress preview of how the world's two most important powers will deal with each other when their interests and value systems are on the line.

It shows they understand the futility of brinkmanship and the virtues of compromise as the basis of a relationship that will shape the world for decades to come. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was in Beijing for talks when all this happened, called it the most consequential relationship of the 21st century. These words would have been chosen with care.

The closest China came to escalating a tense situation was when it asked the US to apologise for 'interference' in offering sanctuary to Chen in its embassy after his improbable escape from house arrest in Shangdong province. Nothing more has been said - an indication, one hopes, that this was no more than a gesture meant for domestic consumption to placate certain shades of opinion. The US on its part could have exposed China on its Achilles heel of rights abuses. That would have prompted hawkish elements in the leadership to demand a strong response. But the language of conciliation and respect Mrs Clinton chose when she addressed the issue indirectly was helpful, a clear-sighted acceptance of big-power realities.

Domestic considerations must have played a part too. The coming leadership change in Beijing is no occasion to have the presumptive new leaders, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, saddled with an unproductive start to their stint. In the US, human rights abuses in China, among other concerns, could loom large as the presidential election campaign gets under way. China's undertaking to allow Chen to go to America for studies, and the US embrace of a persecuted social activist, was a deal that permitted both sides to say they had acted responsibly. But China must know it will be watched closely on how it deals with dissidents and campaigners for justice as its power grows. Chen was not even a political agitator, only a defender of human decency in opposing forced abortions. His dramatic escape from house arrest caught global attention. Thankfully, it has not sparked a major superpower crisis.

 

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