More on Chen Guangcheng: The Limits of Outside Power

Could America have done more to protect the Chinese civil-rights crusader? It's not yet clear that we could.

As mentioned yesterday, what I know about this case, from the other side of the world here in DC, mainly depends on the blog posts and Twitter feeds of people on scene.

The Atlantic has had several interesting posts about the matter, but I want to sound a cautionary note about their unintended cumulative effect. Right now we have a featured headline on our site saying "Chen Says U.S. Officials Lied to Speed His Exit." The International-channel headline for that same article says "Chinese Activist 'Very Disappointed' in the U.S., Says Officials Lied to Him." Another featured item has the headline, "America's Cold-Blooded Treatment of Chen Guangcheng." [Update: At right is the way our site is now featuring "More on Chen Guangcheng." My concern is about the accumulation of conclusive-sounding headlines all pointing the same way, in advance of what anyone knows for sure.]

Quite a lot about this situation is confusing and contradictory, to put it mildly. But I would caution readers against drawing an inference, from headlines like the ones above on US-based analyses rather than on-scene reports, that (a) it is clear that U.S. officials so clearly mis-handled, or coldly handled, this case, or (b) there was something much more clearly successful or satisfying that they could have done. It's possible that both those things will prove to be true, and the Obama Administration and its representatives in Beijing will deserve criticism. But that is far from clear now -- and I worry that a pileup of headlines of this sort can give an initial shape to the story that is hard to change, and that the complicated facts don't support.

I understand that we have some more reports coming soon (which I'll link to as they emerge), stressing some of these other aspects of the story. In the meantime, I recommend this article, "The Debacle in Beijing," on the New York Review's site, by Ian Johnson. Sample quotes, with emphasis added:

The story of a blind Chinese lawyer's flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders have little leverage to shape China's future. This isn't to say that China is permanently stuck in an authoritarian quagmire and outsiders can only watch. On the contrary, people like Chen Guangcheng show how China is changing: from the grassroots up, by ordinary citizens willing to assert their rights and push change....

It's not that the United States and other countries can't do anything. Outsiders can insist that until China meets its own laws on due process, torture, and extra-judicial detentions it won't be a fully fledged partner of any Western democracy. But the idea that the United States can make a powerful country like China change its political and legal system simply by insisting on it--by "doing something"--is delusional....

US diplomats gamely took Chen in last week and began negotiating. But they had an incredibly weak hand. Chen had two losing propositions: stay in the embassy and hope that one day he could be allowed to leave for the airport and take a flight to the United States. This would have been the Fang Lizhi option, as Perry Link so well describes on this site.... Chen took the other option and left the embassy Wednesday.

Read the whole thing -- and to the degree possible suspend judgment on the U.S. side until we know more about what has happened and is still in store. [Update: Also please see Walter Russell Mead for what is to me a realistic rendering of events, including the crucial role and testimony of Jerome Cohen. Something our blogging software keeps screwing up the link to his post, but search for his name, and Chen, and China Syndrome, and you'll see it.]