Blind Dissident Chen Guangcheng Aggravates US-China Relations

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Will Inboden is a distinguished scholar at the Strauss Center at the University of Texas, Austin. Previously, he served as Senior Director for Strategic Planning for the National Security Council under President Bush. We just heard Reggie Littlejohn, Will, saying the Obama Administration has completely fumbled the Chen case. What is your sense?

Will Inboden: I would not go that far yet, but I'm growing increasingly concerned, Marco. After the initial reports yesterday, I wrote pretty favorably that it looks like the Obama Administration had pulled off a good deal based on two conditions: that Chen is allowed to stay in China an enroll in law school and the second, the Chinese Government is agreeing to honor his freedom and his rights. What we're hearing now is it seems like those conditions are not being met and so that's why I initially wanted to give the Obama Administration, you know, all the benefit of the doubt here, that they had secured sufficient agreements from the Chinese Government to honor Chen's rights, but it's now looking like that may not be that case. So this could not be ending so well.

Werman: Right. And yesterday you also wrote on your blog that it would be a good thing if Chen stays in China. Do you still feel that way today?

Inboden: Well, the first principle in all of these cases with human right dissidents is to understand and honor the desire of the dissident. At the time, it sounded like Chen wanted to stay in China and, you know, precisely because his family's there and so that could continue his activism, and so that's why I was very favorable towards the deal the administration cut. Now, it's looking like two things have changed. One, Chen is realizing that he does not have as much protection either from the US Government of certainly from the Chinese Goverment and, second, that changes his calculation and he now seems like he wants to come to the US, and if that's the case I would certainly be supportive and I hope the administration would be as well of bringing him to the US so he can seek asylum here.

Werman: What should, what can the US do right now?

Inboden: Well, Marco, let me share an anecdote of a similar case I worked on when I was working for President Bush at the White House that gives one or two illustrations of ways I think the Obama Administration could have done more and maybe still could do more. In 2007, President Bush arranged to meet, in Washington at the White House, with three prominent Chinese dissidents who were visiting the US for just a week and then they were planning on returning to China. Shortly before the meeting, the Chinese Government sent a very nasty threat to the White House saying that if these guys return to China, you know, their safety could not be guaranteed, in other words, that they were going to be arrested. So before President Bush met with them, he sent a back channel message to the Chinese Government saying, "I, President Bush, am personally in the welfare of these three dissidents and if anything happens to them, that will cause a severe disruption in US-China relations." We then followed up by having our embassy in Beijing send diplomats to meet the dissidents at the airport in Beijing when they returned, escort them to their apartments, and keep in very regular touch with them. And for the next year and a half, the duration of President Bush's administration, they were left alone. So I hope the Obama administration, for this to work, President Obama and Secretary Clinton are going to need to get personally involved. They're going to need to communicate to Hu Jintao, to Xi Jinping, the leader-in-waiting, that they are personally committed to the welfare of Chen Guangcheng and to seeing that his rights are honored.

Werman: I mean China has already expressed anger that the United States harbored an activist. How much worse can this get?

Inboden: Well, I mean potentially it could get worse. I don't want to speculate on any specific measures there, but, you know, China might, you know, look to disrupt relations with the US in other areas. They may continue their roundup of other human rights dissidents, they might try to put more pressure on Chen's family, but the Chinese Government is calculating on these things and they are going to make their decisions based on what the cost to them might be of escalating. And if they know that President Obama and Secretary Clinton are personally interested in this case and are personally involved, they may decide it's not worth it to make things worse for Chen Guangcheng or for other dissidents in China.

Werman: Will Inboden, Assistant Professor at the University of Texas, Austin and former Senior Director for Strategic Planning for the Bush National Security Council. Thanks, Will.

Inboden: Thank you very much.