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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

U.S.-China Diplomacy Over Chinese Legal Advocate Chen Guangcheng

Susan V. Lawrence
Specialist in Asian Affairs

Thomas Lum
Specialist in Asian Affairs

The case of blind Chinese legal advocate Chen Guangcheng, who escaped from illegal house arrest in China’s Shandong Province on April 20, 2012, and made his way to Beijing, the United States Embassy, and, ultimately, the United States, has generated strong congressional interest. While Chen was still in China, some Members questioned whether the U.S. State Department had done enough to ensure Chen’s safety, with criticism focused on the State Department’s decision to escort Chen from the Embassy to a Beijing hospital on May 2, 2012, and its willingness to accept verbal assurances from the Chinese government that it would ensure a “safe environment” for Chen in China. With Chen now in the United States, remaining issues for the Administration and Congress include the fate of the family members, supporters, and friends back in China who helped him escape. The situation of Chen’s nephew, Chen Kegui, may be of particular concern. He faces attempted murder charges for injuring security personnel with a kitchen knife when they burst into his father’s house late at night after Chen’s escape, and he has been denied access to lawyers retained by his family on his behalf. The United States is also watching to see if China follows through on its promise to investigate Chen’s treatment at the hands of local officials in Shandong over the past seven years. In the longer term, congressional considerations include how the United States should respond to other human rights cases in China, and what place promotion of human rights should have in the overall U.S.-China relationship.

Chen’s saga tested the bilateral relationship and showed it to have a resilience that surprised some observers. When an associate of Chen’s contacted the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on April 25, 2012, to request help for him, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reportedly personally authorized a mission to rescue Chen from the streets of Beijing and bring him into the U.S. Embassy compound for assessment by U.S. medical personnel. That move plunged the United States and China into three weeks of high-stakes diplomacy over Chen’s fate. With the two countries’ premier bilateral dialogue, the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, scheduled for May 3 and 4, 2012, in Beijing, diplomats for the two sides engaged in tense negotiations. Moving at a rapid pace, they produced a detailed and highly unusual set of understandings under which the Chinese government committed to relocate Chen to a “safe environment” away from his home province and offer him the opportunity to study law at one of seven universities, with the Chinese government paying for Chen’s tuition and room and board for him and his family. Chen accepted these verbal understandings—the terms of which China never publicly confirmed—and left the Embassy after six days for a local hospital. Hours later, Chen changed his mind about staying in China, occasioning another round of negotiations. Those negotiations produced a subsequent understanding, under which the Chinese government said publicly that Chen was free to apply for documents to study abroad. Chen, his wife Yuan Weijing, and their two children arrived in the United States on May 19, 2012. Chen plans to study law at New York University.

This report begins by examining implications of the Chen case for the place of human rights in U.S.-China relations. It then discusses why Beijing may have been willing to negotiate with the United States at all over the fate of a Chinese citizen inside China. The report highlights the remaining issues in the case, details the understandings reached between the two governments, and then provides background on Chen Guangcheng and a list of his family and other associates in China who may be at risk. The report includes a map showing Chen’s home district and Beijing, the city to which he escaped. It also includes a timeline of developments in the case from April 20, 2012, until May 19, 2012, based upon information available at the time of publication.

Date of Report: May 29, 2012
Number of Pages: 21
Order Number: R42554
Price: $29.95

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