The Geopolitics of Helping a Confused, Frightened, Blind Man in Beijing

As Chen Guangcheng's case becomes more complicated and more politicized, the blind activist is wading into superpower politics, and maybe getting in over his head.

Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng in rural China. /Reuters

Update, 8:25am: Chen has been offered a fellowship to study law at a U.S. university. A State Department spokeswoman says the U.S. expects that China "will expeditiously process" travel documents for him to study there. That the Chinese authorities appear willing to allow this long-detained activist and his family to freely travel to America -- while retaining his Chinese citizenship -- is an extraordinary breakthrough.

Less than a day after blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng fretted to a CNN reporter that he was "very disappointed" in U.S. officials for encouraging him -- and, he said, lying in an effort to "lobby" him -- to leave the embassy grounds in Beijing, Chen now says that his sense that the Americans had abandoned him was a "misunderstanding." He expressed his "deep gratitude" to the same American officials whom, only hours earlier, he had lambasted as having not "protected human rights in this case." He disputed the appearance that, since leaving the embassy as part of a deal to live in partial freedom with his family, he'd changed his mind. "The agreement was that I would have full civil liberties and travel freely as I wish," he said, reiterating his desire -- which he adopted shortly after leaving the embassy -- to flee to the U.S.

The Chen roller-coaster has taken many ups and downs over the past 48 hours, and it's taken the U.S.-China relationship -- maybe the most important diplomatic link in the world today -- with it, every turn by harrowing turn. First his stay at the embassy was a slap in Beijing's face and potential geopolitical crisis, then his departure under a carefully negotiated U.S.-China deal was a humble but important breakthrough, later his declaration that he'd been misled into taking the deal was a grave American mistake, and now his request for the U.S. to take him out of China is yet another slap to Beijing and opportunity for diplomatic meltdown.

Chen, who grew up in rural Shandong province when rural China was still one of the poorest places on Earth, is a courageous activist and a self-made man; he is not particularly worldly. Yet he's on the world stage now, whether he wants to be or not, and as more than just an activist. Having elevated his mistreatment to the U.S. embassy, he is, for this brief moment, a major player in the great power politics of the Pacific. His declarations, demands, and denouncements are now a subject of the U.S. presidential race and a major issue (if largely unspoken, in public anyway) of the high-level U.S.-China talks for which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are both in Beijing.

This a man who has done amazing things with his life, pushing against horrific abuses by a government that is not fond of dissent, but his battlegrounds have been very different than the one he's on today. After what must have been an exhilarating escape, and a stay at the U.S. embassy that by all accounts had Chen at his cheeriest, he is back in the hands of the same Chinese government whose police recently threatened to beat his wife to death (though the state is far from monolithic). And he's scared. "I feel my family members aren't very safe in China," he told the Wall Street Journal.

Tellingly, Chen also seemed surprised by the idea that he would not be allow to return to the embassy, and thus leave China for the U.S., at any point. "The U.S. embassy never said whether or not I could go back after getting out of the hospital," he said. "But I'm a free citizen. If something happens, of course I could go to the embassy." Few, if any, observers seem to believe that Chinese authorities, who kept him under house arrest for years, would allow him to return to the embassy. Chen is a remarkable and brave man, but at moments like this, he can also seem a bit naive, and that's not irrelevant to how his case is developing.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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