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
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT