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.

Throughout this episode, Chen has shown two consistent traits that don't seem to be helping him: an odd optimism about his situation, no matter how dire it gets; and a politically insensitive willingness to say whatever he thinks. His requests to fly to America on Hillary Clinton's plane, or to travel freely to a from the U.S. embassy building, show that he may not fully grasp the gravity of his situation. His comments first thanking U.S. embassy officials, then chiding them, then insisting it had been a "misunderstanding" are probably not going to deter those officials from helping him. But the same political insensitivity toward the Chinese government -- which is never thrilled to hear dissidents insisting that they be allowed to leave for the U.S., or accusing the state of violating their rights -- could risk some of the unusual goodwill China has shown. The deal that China agreed to for Chen is, by China's extremely low standards, surprisingly not bad. Within the Chinese government, some hard-line officials would probably like to see Chen thrown back under house arrest, and the activist is unwittingly helping those officials build their case.

Chen's sudden urgency about leaving China could be due in part to his claims that U.S. embassy officials are no longer answering his phone calls, and that the officials did not stay with him at the Beijing hospital overnight as promised. The U.S. embassy appears to be doing what it can to keep up with Chen's shifting requests. When he was in the embassy, he wanted to stay in China, and they negotiated an imperfect -- he will not be totally free, and it's possible Chinese authorities could renege on their promises -- but still landmark deal for him to stay. Now that he's out, he says he wants to travel to the U.S., and though it's very difficult to see a way for the embassy to pull this off, officials say they're doing their best to negotiate with Chinese authorities.

At this point, the U.S. may be at or near the limits of its power to help Chen. China is a powerful and sovereign country, and one particularly unwelcome to Western dictates. Its treatment of dissident activists is among the worst in the world, but the U.S. has somehow managed to secure a deal that, although it has little way of guaranteeing Chinese state cooperation, is far better than years of house arrest. Chen seems surprised and disappointed that the U.S. did not live up to his lofty sense of American power and ideals.

Somehow, in a country that drills into would-be activists that they should abandon hope and shut their mouths, Chen is still optimistic and still determined to speak his mind. Those traits may have made him a great activist in a country that badly needs them. But they are not helping him navigate the great-power politics that he's been thrust into. He is stuck between the two most powerful states in the world, stuck in the middle of a much larger U.S.-China conversation about human rights that has been running since President Clinton reopened the relationship in the mid-1990s. He has to figure out how to navigate all of this as a blind idealist from rural China, sitting in a Beijing hospital and worrying about his family's safety. Of all the many challenges he's faced in his life, this may be the biggest.