The American Beacon in Beijing: Why Chinese Look to the U.S. for Freedom

The USC story, like Chen's flight to the American embassy, is a microcosm of Chinese respect for the U.S. as well as the heightened sensitivity to any perception of deliberate American embarrassment of China. That families would pay such lofty tuition (even more expensive by Chinese standards) shows the respect for American education. But the moments of apparent sensitivity -- students rallying in protest to an erroneous AP story, the Chinese government reacting severely to Chen's decision to turn to American officials for help -- are a reminder that it is partly because of Chinese respect for the U.S. that any perceived slight by Americans, or loss-of-face before the U.S., can be particularly painful. If the students' murder had taken place in some European country, Chinese students wouldn't have reacted the same way; neither would the Chinese government likely take Chen's flight quite as seriously if he'd walked into a European embassy. America's opinions on China always carry a special weight, among Chinese domestically as well as overseas. If America inspires aspiration and admiration in China, so too does it inspire a sort of nationalist backlash.

Chin's most privileged class, though they seem less willing to admit it, are often even more eager in their approach to embrace the American image and everything it promises. For high-level Chinese leaders, state company CEOs, and wealthy private business owners, America is not just an abstract idea, as it largely remains to Chinese dissidents and common citizens, but an integral part of their living. A joint Bain-China Merchants Bank report found that nearly 60 percent of Chinese with more than RMB 10 million (roughly $1.6 million) in investable assets are either considering immigration to the West or have already completed the process. Most put the U.S. as their first choice. Attracted to its well-established legal protection over private properties and prestigious education opportunities, they find the country a safe haven to park their assets, and a fertile ground for their children's growth. In just two years, Manhattan luxury real estate market has seen what began as a trickle of interest from China grow into a steady inflow of investment. Elite American boarding schools report that their applications from China are increasing several times over. This trend remains largely hidden from the public eye in mainland China, though whispers and speculations are circulating. People were outraged when journalists unearthed details of the luxurious lifestyle that Bo Xilai's son enjoys at Harvard, and when the government charged his wife for murder and illicitly transferring astronomical amounts of money overseas. In these stories, the United States is at once the promise of safety, rights, and equality desired by Chinese citizens and the evidence of the corruption and unequal access to power and wealth they have no choice but to accept.

In the end, both Chen Guangcheng and Wang Lijun, the former Chongqing police chief, left the U.S. diplomatic residences following strenuous diplomatic tussles between Chinese and American officials. Wang, himself a law-flouting persecutor of his political opponents, was turned over to central government officials, who fished him out of the hostile Chengdu police force and is keeping him under custody.

Chen's fate is less clear. Though Secretary of the State Hillary Clinton said he left with "a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment," Chen said he also chose to leave in part because Chinese police were threatening his family. Once reunited with his wife and children, Chen, for the first time, expressed a wish to leave China for a safer place.

Though Chen left the embassy smiling, he quickly soured, later saying he was "very disappointed" with the U.S. and Obama personally, portraying embassy officials as having misled him into leaving rather than seeking asylum. Whether or not he is right to feel manipulated, it's revealing that his expectations for what American could do for him seem to have been so high. In the end, the U.S. told him that they could grant him asylum without his family or they could broker a deal with the Chinese government that would allow him to remain in China with limited freedom, though they had no way of ensuring Chinese officials would hold to the bargain. Chen, seeing their failure to do more, reacted not with understanding that American influence is limited or with acceptance that the U.S. might also consider its sensitive relationship with Beijing, but disappointment that America had not lived up to his own lofty vision of it.

In a flurry of confusion and concern, Chinese citizens rushed to Weibo to parse out the case. Some are angry at the Chinese government's demand for an American apology over the episode, others feared for Chen's safety. "Americans have left. You are in danger now," says one message. More hopeful speculators relate Chen's case to a similar incident from 1989, when Fang Lizhi, the activist at the top of the Chinese government's wanted list following the Tiananmen Square massacre, sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Fang, after listening to cautious U.S. diplomats fret over the diplomatic complications of granting him protection, decided to leave the embassy. He and his wife were invited back the same night, however, when Washington officials learned about his situation and ordered the embassy to retrieve him, as "the guests of President George Bush." He spent the next 13 months in the embassy as U.S. negotiated with China, eventually winning him permission to move to the U.S., where, after living an active and devoted life as an astrophysicist and advocate for Chinese democracy, he passed away last month.

"We will keep paying attention to Chen Guangcheng's whereabouts," one Chinese message on an online forum reads. "Any American help for Chen Guangcheng will win the support of the Chinese people."

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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