Skip to main content

Dissident's flight could strain U.S.-China ties

By Christopher K. Johnson, Special to CNN
April 28, 2012 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Human rights activist Chen Guangcheng appears on YouTube after he slipped away from house arrest.
Human rights activist Chen Guangcheng appears on YouTube after he slipped away from house arrest.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Christopher Johnson: D.C., China face tense moment over dissident's apparent flight to U.S. protection
  • He says it has echoes of Tiananmen Square era; reflects nations' human rights differences
  • He says recent tiffs have tested nations' ties; incident comes on eve of U.S.-China talks
  • Johnson: China's internal conflicts, rise of internet, help make situation fraught

Editor's note: Christopher K. Johnson is a senior adviser and holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He previously served as a senior China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency.

(CNN) -- Washington and Beijing may be facing the most tense and delicate moment in their bilateral relationship since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. The reported escape from house arrest of dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng and his apparent flight to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, while not yet officially confirmed, would greatly complicate the Obama administration's efforts to keep relations on an even keel in a year already fraught with bilateral irritants.

Both leaderships want stability in the relationship, given the confluence of a U.S. presidential election and the once-in-a-decade leadership transition in Beijing scheduled for this fall. But this desire has been put to the test. There have been tiffs over China's early support for the Assad regime in Syria and North Korea's failed satellite launch and presumed follow-on nuclear test. And there was the bungled attempt by the erstwhile security chief of a senior Chinese Politburo member to seek refuge in a U.S. diplomatic facility on the eve of a visit to Washington by China's putative next leader. And now this.

On many levels, the parallels to 1989 are striking. After the June 4 bloody crackdown on student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, another famous Chinese dissident, Fang Lizhi, became a living symbol of the bilateral conflict over human rights by spending a year in the U.S. Embassy before finally being allowed to leave the country.

Christopher Johnson
Christopher Johnson

Today's top Chinese leadership, though not yet as deeply divided as its 1989 antecedent, is struggling to maintain unity following the purge of one of its rising Politburo stars for his connections to the security chief's botched flight and lurid allegations of the murder of a British national. Recent apparent leaks and counter-leaks to the Western media detailing leadership infighting underscore the charged political atmosphere in Beijing as party heavyweights jockey for advantage in the wake of the scandal.

Another wrinkle now is the absence of a revolutionary-credentialed paramount leader — manifest in the personage of Deng Xiaoping in 1989 — to arbitrate among the competing leadership constituencies.

Add to this cauldron the scheduled arrival in Beijing next week of a Cabinet-level U.S. delegation — led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner — for the fourth round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). If Chen is holed up in the U.S. Embassy, it is hard to fathom how the two sides will stay focused on the many pressing geostrategic and economic challenges in the relationship -- especially as they will undoubtedly face a frenzy among accompanying media over Chen's status.

Moreover, the Chinese leadership certainly will view the visit through the prism of another pivotal moment in the Tiananmen drama, the state visit to China of then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which emboldened the demonstrators and deepened divisions among the leadership.

Of course a game changer from 1989, and one that seems to constantly surprise the Chinese leadership, is the power of social media and the Internet. Despite a large contingent of foreign media in Beijing to cover Gorbachev's visit in 1989, the regime still was largely able to pull the plug on the world's ability to witness the ensuing massacre in real time. It is learning in recent weeks that such control is virtually impossible now.

But this challenge can be a two-way street. If media accounts are accurate that Chen Guangcheng entered the U.S. Embassy on Thursday evening, then U.S. diplomats had less than 24 hours between his arrival and the story's explosion on the Internet. This hardly left sufficient time to seek instructions from Washington and to approach Chinese officials about the possibility of orchestrating a face-saving way to end the potential standoff. The problem is made worse by the likelihood that many in the Chinese elite will assume the United States deliberately leaked the information to embarrass the Chinese government on the eve of the S&ED.

The Chinese Communist Party's liberal wing also is trying to exploit the downfall of its Politburo archenemy to revive its long-diminished fortunes and push for a new wave of economic and political change. Their hard-line opponents, however, will see an opportunity in the Chen Guangcheng affair to blunt any reformist tide. Coming on the same day the White House will have tweaked Beijing's neuralgia about Taiwan by advising Congress that it will take a second look at potential sales of new fighter aircraft to the island. The news about Chen completes the circle for those eager to paint the United States as bent on stifling China's rise.

In the past, such cries of "hostile foreign forces" meddling in China's internal affairs frequently have taken the wind out of the reformists' sail.

Against this backdrop, the stage is set for a sudden increase in bilateral tension. Initially presumed to be largely inconsequential, next week's S&ED meetings may prove the most critical test of U.S.-China relations the Obama administration has faced to date.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christopher Johnson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 2122 GMT (0522 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1608 GMT (0008 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 13, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT