Skip to main content

Was the U.S. naive about the Chen Guangcheng deal?

By Yang Su, Special to CNN
updated 3:16 AM EDT, Sat May 5, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The deal the U.S. and China made over Chen Guangcheng appears to be unraveling
  • Yang Su: Has the Obama administration bungled his case?
  • He says the deal was almost made to be broken because the U.S. made false assumptions
  • Su: U.S. will have more success in negotiating with China if it recruits more Chinese experts

Editor's note: Yang Su is an associate professor of sociology at University of California, Irvine.

(CNN) -- The Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng's daring and extraordinary escape to the U.S. embassy in Beijing has captivated the world. At first, it appeared that U.S. diplomats and the Chinese government brokered a deal that satisfied Chen and everyone involved. But now Chen says he wants to leave China, and that he feels unsafe.

Has the Obama administration bungled his case? Did President Barack Obama use people who were capable of correctly interpreting the signals in China? Or was there a gap in translation?

Possible breakthrough for blind activist

We learned earlier this week that Chen was released from the U.S. Embassy with the Chinese government's assurance of his "safety" and a promise to facilitate his study of law in an unspecified place outside his home province of Shandong. It sounded like a win-win solution. But those who have intimate knowledge of China and its political system had reasons to worry.

In many ways, the deal was almost made to be broken, because it was based on three erroneous assumptions on the part of American officials.

U.S. officials to meet with Chen
Did U.S. fail Chinese activist Chen?
Human rights part of talks with China
China censors Anderson Cooper

The first false assumption is that the Chinese government's assurances are ironclad. To be sure, there has to be some trust among negotiators. But the Chinese government has meted out overly harsh treatment to dissidents in recent years. What confidence do we have that it will make an exception in Chen's case? The American trust that the Chinese government will honor its promises was misplaced, if not outright naïve.

Behind the scenes of the Chen drama

Second, U.S. officials assumed the word "safety" means the same thing for both sides. The Chinese negotiators may have had a totally different arrangement in mind when they spoke of safety. For them, Chen was "safe" when he was confined in his home in Shandong, surrounded by armies of security guards.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion

Third, the United States should not have thought of the case as just zealous local Shandong officials abusing their power when they confined Chen. It is hard to believe that Shandong officials did what they did to Chen, a high profile activist, without consent from above. That local officials from elsewhere will not abuse their power is hard to believe. Would Chen not be viewed as a threat to "stability" by his handlers once he enters a Chinese university?

Some China observers have pointed out that Chen can only blame himself for insisting to stay in China as a cornerstone of the deal. They are disappointed by his change of mind. Chen certainly knows the Chinese political system the best among those involved in the negotiation. So he should have expected the threats he may face if he stays in China.

But, for a blind and ill person who had just escaped from a long detention with little contact with the outside world, isn't it too much to ask that he make the most rational decision? And how could he opt to leave China when his family was in the hands of Chinese officials who could have caused them harm?

There is no easy fix to the predicament. Taking Chen out of China would have been a good solution, but that possibility may be receding.

The U.S. officials who were involved with the negotiations should have recognized the potential problems in the deal and expected the treatment that Chen would encounter after leaving the U.S. Embassy. If they are not well equipped to do so (despite the fact that some of them are ethnically Asian), then where are their China hands?

While we don't know how the Chen case will ultimately turn out, for the United States, it's time to think strategically of enlisting more advisers from a new generation of China scholars. There are political scientists teaching at elite universities in the United States who are more than qualified to advise the State Department on sensitive diplomatic issues. These scholars were born and grew up in China and may have worked in the Chinese government before coming to the United States. They have expertise on Chinese politics and society that is hard to come by, because they can see things from the perspective of the Chinese.

In the coming years, the United States will have more success in dealing or negotiating with China if it recruits more experts who really understand how China works.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Yang Su.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT