The Curious Chen Crisis Spotlights Our Big China Conundrum

As if he didn’t have enough geopolitical crises already.
President Barack Obama got a complicated new crisis to manage this week, this one in China, where blind dissident icon Chen Guancheng — who, somehow, escaped house arrest in his village and made his way hundreds of miles to the U.S. embassy, where he received temporary sanctuary — “voluntarily” left the embassy and returned to Chinese soil.
With supposed new safeguards for his freedom, it was hailed as a diplomatic success by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Then Chen said that he had been coerced to leave the U.S. embassy by Chinese government threats to incarcerate his wife. Or even kill her.
Then the activist reached out to Republicans in Congress, seeking to come to the U.S. on Hillary’s plane when it leaves China. Clinton was there to work on bilateral relations with the Middle Kingdom, which already theatened a turn for the worse. Later, a resolution of sorts seems to have been achieved, in which Chen, joined by his family, will come to America “temporarily” as a new fellow of New York University.
The whole thing is very odd. How did Chen, who is blind, escape through layers of custody and get to and gain entrance to the U.S. embassy in the first place? Was he allowed to do so to create a crisis in the midst of high-level U.S./China negotiations? If so, why? If not, well, perhaps it’s just an odd confluence of events.
It all highlights what a conundrum that leaders from Washington to California face in dealing with the challenges and opportunities presented by a clearly ascending and not very well understood China.
Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist, now says he wants to leave for the U.S. rather than stay in China, nixing a deal used to coax him out of the U.S. embassy in Beijing and defuse an impasse that strained China-U.S. ties even as he said he felt abandoned by U.S. officials. Chen, a self-taught legal activist, is under Chinese control in a Beijing hospital, having left the embassy on Wednesday.
Whatever is really going on with Chen, it could hardly have been less opportune, with Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in Beijing to try to work out better economic and financial arrangements with the fast-rising power, as well as try to coordinate efforts on the crises with North Korea, Iran, and Syria.
In the midst of it all, we of course have reflexive super-hawk Mitt Romney — who toughed out the Vietnam War, which he strongly advocated, as a Mormon missionary in France — saying Obama is weak and he would be tougher with China, whatever that means. Which is quite ironic, since Romney made his incredible fortune in the leveraged buyout business, a business in which I don’t believe he ever went out of his way to alienate his lenders.
For the U.S. and China have a symbiotic economic relationship. We provide China with markets for their hyperactive export sector. China provides us with debt financing.
But China is on the rise, while the U.S., having made some massive mistakes, is struggling to hold on to its post-World War II and post-Cold War preeminence.
Yet China has big problems of its own, not the least of which is a huge and increasingly restive population which wants to share in a revolution of rising material expectations and chafes at the authoritarianism of one of the world’s last Communist governments. China’s government has reacted with alarm to the Arab Awakening, probably fearing such an awakening among its own people, as a result joining Russia, which also cracks down on internal dissent, in opposing widespread international moves to support human rights and democracy.
China has been much more assertive and aggressive with its neighbors lately, claiming nearly all the South China Sea despite the fact that many nations share it, and pushing forward with plans to create its own aircraft carrier battle groups and develop various advanced weapons systems that no other Asian nation, with the possible exception of Japan, could hope to counter.
Now it’s coming up against calls from the U.S. and most of its neighbors to rein in its drive for export-driven economic eminence to take steps to stop depressing the yuan, much more stringently protect intellectual property rights, and sharply cut state subsidies to its corporations.
And China is resisting transnational environmental controls even as it moves very aggressively to take a leading global role in green technology.
As I discussed last November in The Huffington Post — in “Darwinian: Obama Goes Post-Iraq in Oz, Republicans Race To the Past” — Obama is rolling out the major beginnings of a post-Iraq geopolitical posture for the U.S. and a revamped political, economic, and security architecture in the Pacific Basin, in large part to counter the rise of China. Which has been undercutting U.S. industries and making new aggressive moves over the past year in the South China Sea — most of which it claims, to the consternation of its neighboring countries — and some threatening moves, as always, towards Taiwan.
As for the rest of Obama’s strategy in what he calls the Asia Pacific, much of it hinges on Darwin, Australia.
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