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

Chen Guangcheng's decision to take shelter in the U.S. embassy extends a modern tradition in China of seeing America as an idealized alternative to their own system.

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Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng poses in front of the U.S. embassy in Beijing with senior American officials. /Reuters

When a Chinese police chief and anti-mafia hero, having fallen out with his municipal party boss, dashed out of his home in the megacity of Chongqing; and when a blind lawyer persecuted for fighting cases for women suffering forced sterilization escaped from a 18-month extralegal house arrest in rural Shandong, they both headed to the same destination: the closest American diplomatic residence.

The two most recent real-life thrillers coming out of China, though they involve characters from opposite ends of the power spectrum, both began with a man's frantic attempt to seek refuge from the Chinese system in the embraces of American power. This, more than a coincidence, sheds light on a truth deeply rooted in current Chinese society, but often muddled by the constant bickering between the two nations: the popular Chinese conviction of the United States' unrivaled international clout, and a widely shared perception of the U.S. as the ultimate embodiment of justice, democracy, and the rule of law.

None of these ideas are unfamiliar to the Chinese public. China labels itself as a socialist democracy, and the government has vowed for years to push for legal reforms. Last month's televised announcement that the government would investigate Chongqing's former party chief Bo Xilai -- as a result of Wang Lijun's visit to the U.S. Consulate, where he reported his boss's abuses -- closed with the official affirmation that "our nation is a country of socialist rule of law, and dignity and authority of the law cannot be trampled." Still fresh in the memory of many Chinese, however, are the bloody ethnic protests in Tibet in 2008 and in Xinjiang in 2009, the scandal of tainted milk powder that led to six infant deaths and 300,000 cases of illness, the jailing of Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, and the large-scale arrests of dissidents after the Jasmine protests last year. The reality of China's human rights record has seeped into public knowledge, despite the state's efforts to censor media and the Internet. The government's mistreatment of Chen Guangcheng, long a symbolic case championed by domestic and international rights activists, and now even more broadly publicized by his audacious escape, is a reminder of the tension in China between the state and the people pushing for positive social change. That the episode culminated inside the walls of the U.S. embassy is also a reminder that many Chinese, when they believe their country has failed them, look to America.

In his moment of crisis, though he insisted that he wanted to remain in China, Chen found this plot of American ground to be the "only truly safe place" for himself, echoing similar episodes in Chinese history. At the height of the Second World War, panicked Chinese residents in Tianjin and Shanghai flocked to European and U.S. legation quarters, seeking shelter from raining Japanese bombs. Decades later, when the government turned against its people in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, leagues of Chinese scholars and activists, fearing persecution, fled to the United States on political asylum and special visas. In recent years, Chinese policies have forced religious, ethnic, and intellectual groups into exile, often to the United States. Yu Jie, a Chinese writer persecuted for publishing scathing criticisms of party officials, told me as part of an interview I helped translate for a TV news network early this year in his new home in a tranquil Northern Virginia suburb, that having his personal safety guaranteed in America finally allows him peace of mind. "I won't have to worry about people breaking into my house any moment to take away my computer and books," Yu said. "I can finally focus on my writing."

While Chinese activists, motivated by political ideals, often view the United States as a synonym of freedom and democracy, the majority of Chinese citizens see it as something simpler and more concrete: a society with clean food, safe roads, and government officials that truly serve the people. Last summer, when newly appointed U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke arrived at his post, he found that he was already a bit of a star. A Chinese traveler had taken a photo of Locke, which he posted online, buying coffee with his six-year-old daughter and carrying a backpack at the Seattle airport. The seemingly banal scene's impact in China bewildered many westerners, but for Chinese citizens, who are used to seeing their own officials flashing their wealth and status and tended by a retinue of underlings, the humble image of Locke, who shares their skin color and ethnicity, defies belief. His popularity among Chinese people soared so quickly that Chinese censors restricted coverage on the story, apparently worried that Locke would make Chinese leaders look bad.

Chinese citizens, especially when it comes to scandals within their country, often hold up the United States as a shining contrast against the darker Chinese reality. Last winter, after a nine-seat school van crammed with 62 children crashed into a coal truck in northwest China, killing 21 children and two adults, heartbroken Chinese citizens rushed to Internet forums and Weibo, a twitter-style service, and, knowing accusations toward the government would be red-carded by censors, started posting pictures of American school buses. One picture showed a collision in Indianapolis with a Hummer, which was totaled, whereas the school bus was only slightly dented. The Weibo message simply reads, "There is a big difference." "The Americans are truly devoted to raising their next generation," another Weibo user laments. "In rural China, children's lives don't worth much."

At times, Chinese admiration for what they see as the transparency and smooth functioning of American society can be complicated by the other, sometimes-contradictory image of America as a meddling, condescending power. An instinctive hostility, triggered when they suspect any U.S. action toward China as driven by ill will, can resurface the sense of victimhood that came with China's "century of humiliation" at the hands of Western powers. When two Chinese students at the University of Southern California turned up murdered, and some U.S. media erroneously reported that one of the victim's second-hand BMW was worth $60,000 (it was worth much less, and the error seemed to suggest the students were involved in something illicit), many Chinese saw the mistake as part of the American media's effort to smear the Chinese victims and divert the focus of the story. Hundreds gathered in protest at the USC campus, where one third of the school's 7,200 international students are Chinese.

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."