The country's leadership, long sensitive to the embarrassment of releasing dissidents, is showing more confidence and flexibility.
The arrival of the celebrated Chinese rights activist Chen Guangcheng in the U.S. after years of prison and house arrest raises the larger question of what the whole incident will come to mean in terms of the status of dissidents in China and in U.S.-China relations.
In the years immediately following its suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989, the Chinese government often did respond to pressure from Western governments by reluctantly releasing a jailed dissident or two before critical events when it felt the country had something at stake. But, the experience of feeling compelled to yield to Western demands -- never mind how just they were -- was still one fraught with such historical sensitivity, that it was agonizingly painful for Beijing to do so. High officials continued to give in only because yielding to U.S. or European demands did help smooth the way towards getting something else that they wanted or needed, such as an important summit meeting between presidents, prime ministers or foreign secretaries or attaining some other long-sought goal like the rights to hold an Olympic Games. But, as China's rise continued to bolster its clout in the world, the Chinese government soon became far more resistant to such foreign pressure.
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At the same time, another quite counter-intuitive revelation seemed to dawn on Chinese leaders. Just as they were becoming more resistant to pressure, they also seemed to conclude that in certain instances, it was probably better to just exile dissidents and "get them off the lot," so to speak, so that they would not continue to be an endless source of damaging international criticism and bad publicity. They seemed to pragmatically conclude that the cost/benefit ratio of yielding to outside pressure and removing the source of the irritation and contention was actually pretty favorable to them.
The risk, or cost, was a week or so of intensely bad press for China as the dissident landed abroad and was engulfed in a media frenzy. Then, the issue might surface again for a brief reprise when a book or documentary film came out later. But, such second acts would usually echo harmlessly like the report of a far-away howitzer that is heard faintly, and then only after the puff of smoke from its muzzle-burst has long-since vanished. The benefit to Beijing was that after a short period of unwelcome coverage about China's intolerant and oppressive policies towards critics, the press would lose interest, the world would go about its affairs and the dissident would become submerged in the process of building a new life, learning a new language and making a living in his new home. In the meanwhile, China's security establishment could maintain tight controls on other less well-known dissenters.
The tactic of facilitating the most prominent critics of the Party to go into exile was something like the outsourcing of the manufacture process of a very polluting and unwelcomed home-based industry. There might initially be some complaints from dispossessed workers, but ultimately all, or almost all, would be forgotten, and the ongoing problem, if there were one, would be someone else's.
With dissidents like Fang Lizhi and Wei Jingsheng, Chinese officials learned that interest in the opinions of such activists and concern for their well-being quickly waned once they were abroad. The political oblivion usually followed rather rapidly. Moreover, a short while after they left China, these once-celebrated voices seemed to lose the requisite standing necessary to being taken seriously as authorities on Chinese affairs. The process of being exiled effectively turned them into political eunuchs. Far better, so the Chinese leadership seemed to have concluded, to endure a few days of high intensity bad press as a prelude to watching a dissident parked harmlessly and unheard in Queens, sink out of site. The alternative was to have someone like Liu Xiaobo stuck in a Chinese jail writing damning essays and winning Nobel Prizes. (At least so far, neither Liu nor the Chinese Government has shown any inclination to engage in such export tactics in his case.)
During Chen Guangcheng's stay in the U.S. Embassy earlier this month, I happened to be in Beijing attending the most recent session of the Strategic & Economic Dialogue that the U.S. and China hold twice a year as a way to deal with the broad array of problems which vex the bilateral relationship. While inside the containment vessel of the U.S. Embassy, the core of the S&ED process was near radioactive meltdown as both sides --including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ambassador Gary Locke, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, State Department legal advisor Harold Koh, and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner -- slugged it out with Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials on how to deal with Chen's sudden escape and flight into the hands of U.S. diplomats, the rest of the S&ED went merrily along. All around the city different groups were discussing such issues as currency exchange, how to deal with the DPRK, climate change, the Taiwan problem, military-to-military relations, and what forms of cultural exchanges might best fortify relations between the two countries, as if there were not a crisis in this other parallel universe.