A couple of things came out last night which seems to have clarified the position on Chen Guangcheng. Firstly, it emerged that Jerome Cohen, a Chinese and Asian law expert who’s been helping dissidents in China and across Asia for years (here’s his blog) was advising on the case. Here’s how it went down:
In unprecedented diplomatic negotiations with the Chinese starting Monday, Cohen and his colleagues laid out Chen’s options. He could leave and seek asylum in the U.S. while his wife and daughter would likely remain under house arrest in Shandong, or he could choose to stay in China. If he chose the latter, U.S. negotiators would seek assurances from the Chinese government that Chen and his family would not return to the abusive circumstances under which they lived for the last seven years. Cohen advocated a middle path to Chen, based on a deal forged by Chinese activist Ai Weiwei, with whom Cohen has also worked. Chinese officials released Ai from detention last June after 81 days and allowed him to travel freely within Beijing; he recently gave a Skype speech to hundreds of supporters. “Though this solution has caused some problems for the government, they have tolerated it because they know it’s better than the international condemnation of locking him up. Ai is showing a kind of path we are trying hard to create, a space between prison and total freedom,” Cohen told reporters on a call sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. “That’s a kind of precedent I’ve talked to Chen about.”
This appears to be the basis of the deal that was struck. Cohen says that no-one at the Embassy conveyed a threat to Chen that his wife would be beaten to death, and I’m inclined to believe him on that. He adds that Chen was nervous about the choice but left voluntarily. Well, maybe: but the straight choice offered between going to the US and leaving his family in detention in Shandong and leaving the Embassy under whatever terms he could get seems to me to indicate that it was expected that Chen would choose the latter.
On the surface, the deal doesn’t look bad. Under it, he and his family would be moved to Tianjin, which is close to Beijing and where it would be easy for the Embassy to keep an eye on him. He’d also be fairly close to the foreign press corps in Beijing. Additionally the state would pay for him to study law at a local university. One presumes an urban hukou would need to be thrown in to make all this possible.
Chen seems to have changed his mind after he got out, met his family and began talking to supporters. Shanghaiist has an English transcript of a call between Chen and his lawyer Teng Baio in which Teng urges him very strongly to claim asylum with his family. This seems to be the point at which Chen fully reversed his earlier decision.
The comparison with Ai Wewei is interesting. Ai’s freedom of movement is limited, but within that he’s still raising as much hell as he can, still mocking the government and still a focus for dissidence. In fact, he seems to have an almost of semi-protected status in the sense that the limits to his world that the security forces have imposed seem to serve at least partly also as limits to the extent they can invade that world. Cohen seems to hint that he had a similar outcome in mind for Chen. After all, if the deal had worked he would have become a trained and possibly even functioning lawyer specializing in cases of abuses of power, another focus for reform under the partial protection of the US. In other words his case has been handled with a wider political objective in mind.
Well, Chen’s friends in China were clearly having none of it, and nor it seems is Chen. The latest news is that the Embassy has acknowledged his wish for asylum for the family. No news on what they’re going to do about it yet, though.