Chen Guangcheng: so much for a happy ending


Blind activist Chen Guangcheng with his wife and son outside the home in northeast China's Shandong province, March 28, 2005.



Briefly, it looked as if a there had been a resolution to the Chen Guangcheng situation that appeased all sides.

So long as he left the US Embassy, where the blind activist lawyer had sought refuge since his escape from house arrest, Chen and his family were promised safety and humane treatment. The US, which helped negotiate the deal, appeared to have upheld its values, and China was able to save face.

But no sooner did that storyline coalesce than it started to unravel.

Activists fear that Beijing won't live up to its end of the deal, and the US won't have a way to enforce the agreement. The reasons Chen gave up American protection are in question, since it was reported he was threatened by Chinese officials.

More from GlobalPost: Chen Guangcheng, a watershed for human rights?

"It doesn’t seem that there have been any private assurances made to Chen by Chinese government officials concerning his safety since he left the Embassy, only threats," Elizabeth C. Economy, director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote by email Wednesday.

"In addition, we still haven’t seen any public confirmation that Beijing is planning to live up to its part of the bargain — just a number of condemnations of US actions."

Not exactly the clean ending many were hoping for.

"It is too early to know what will happen with Chen Guangcheng," Economy wrote.

"Obviously US officials are not so naïve as to think that everything would progress perfectly, hence the comments from Secretary Clinton concerning the continued involvement of the United States in ensuring Chen’s well-being. Nonetheless, from all appearances, the US seemed to think things were moving in the right direction."

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of "China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know," said he thought it "worrisome if the idea is that the US government would keep looking out for his welfare."

"Everyone's rooting for a happy ending, but it's hard to see how that would happen," he said Wednesday by phone.

Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch, described in an interview earlier this week a potential positive outcome.

By blaming the local officials as opposed to the central authorities (something the central authorities often do themselves), in his YouTube video, Chen had given Beijing an out, according to Kine.

More from GlobalPost: Chen Guangcheng, explained

"Hypothetically," he said, "the Chinese government could respond to this by saying, 'My god, we’ve got a Chongqing-style mini-mafia state in a corner of Shandong province that we need to houseclean now, because we have found out to our surprise and horror that they have been doing all sorts of illegal unlawful absuve acts."

But of course, that would be difficult given the fact that "the Chinese government hates nothing more than having its dirty laundry aired in public and particularly on an international platform."

Wasserstrom highlighted two aspects of Chen's case that make it a particularly volatile one. "The first is the kind of figure Chen Guangcheng is ... his situation is one ordinary citizens can relate to," he said.

Chen is exceptional in that he is a blind, self-taught lawyer. But he also comes from a peasant background and was motivated to become an activist by everyday acts of injustice.

"He didn't go into activism with grandiose ideologies," Wasserstrom said. "He was disgusted with specific cases in which local authorities were trampling on the rights of ordinary people."

Second, Chen continues to try to expose power abuses in his work. Chen came from the "laobaixing" — or "old hundred names," which Wasserstrom considers a Chinese equivalent to the "99 percent" — and he keeps his focus on them.