The president should have canceled the China summit

Article Highlights

  • President Obama could have instructed Secretary Clinton to cancel the summit.

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  • We do not know who calls the shots in China; we do know the Foreign Ministry is the most conciliatory of agencies.

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  • Secretary Clinton should take a strong interest in Chen getting into a U.S. law school quickly and the Chinese government letting him go to one with his family beside him.

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It is easy to second guess the Chen Guangcheng case (though harder without all the facts), so some caution is in order in analyzing this week’s series of incidents.

One plausible scenario is that the American negotiators, two enormously skilled men, did in fact make a good deal with the Chinese Foreign Ministry. They did so under tough conditions when the powers back in Washington just wanted a good summit in China. Chen may have liked the deal at first, because it allowed him to reunite with his family and to keep pressing the case for democratic reform. He may well have thought that with the Party showing deep fractures after the Bo Xilai case, this was a great time to lead a reform movement within China.

The case ran in to two problems. First, there is the apparent pressure from Washington to negotiate a deal fast — to put mostly symbolic summitry over a positive resolution of the Chen case. Second, it is unclear who is in control in China. Power is dispersed along central-provincial axes as well as between the government (e.g., the Foreign Ministry) and the Party. It is still a Leninist system.

Looking back at the more successful case of Fang Lizhi in 1989, participants have written or told me that President George H.W. Bush instructed his people on the ground that even when he came to China for a presidential summit, Fang should remain in the embassy. If the Chinese were not happy with Fang remaining in the embassy, Bush was willing to put off the summit.

President Obama could have instructed Secretary Clinton to do the same. The longer the negotiators had to work, the more leverage they could accrue. The Chinese would eventually want to see the case out of the limelight, temperatures would have cooled, and it is possible that Chen and his family could have left the country sooner rather than later.

The Chinese authorities understand power. Since they strongly believe and even fear that America will stick to its principles anyway, why disabuse them of that? It would have been wise to use that belief as negotiating leverage. The Chinese respect a negotiation where each side is demonstrating relative power and, more often than not, when the U.S. exercises its leverage, the outcome in Sino-American relations is better than it otherwise would have been.

The second problem is that no one — and I include the Chinese government — knows who is pulling all the strings in China. The Foreign Ministry may have had every intention of sticking to its word that Chen would be protected. But local authorities and security services could simply have ignored the central government’s word and begun to threaten Chen and his family. We do not know who calls the shots in China; we do know the Foreign Ministry is the most conciliatory of agencies.

If you take the first and second points together there are two corresponding lessons. First, no matter what you are negotiating with the Chinese, find the weak spot and press on it. In this case that weak spot was the embarrassment that Chen had made it to the embassy, and his bravery and daring in pressing his case for human rights. The United States could have said that we are keeping him until we get exactly the deal we want. Over the next few months, China would eventually have had no choice but to finally concede and let him and his family out of the country, so that they could get him out of the front pages of international newspapers.

The second reinforces the first — with so much uncertainty about how power works in China, the U.S. cannot trust the word of the “softest” part of the Chinese bureaucracy (the Foreign Ministry). So much of China is run by thugs and dictators. The only solution was asylum.

The only leverage the U.S. had was to cancel the summit as soon as it learned that China was going back on its word. Secretary Clinton should have said the summit was suspended until Chen and his family could go back to the embassy and get out of China. The summit, called the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, is already not known for its productivity. Further, the Chen case proves that China cannot, in this state of political turmoil, keep its word. Cancelling would have put the U.S. back in the driver’s seat. Since that option is now gone, the next high-level summit should be suspended until Chen gets himself out of the country through the “normal channels of applying for a visa to study in law school ” that Beijing authorities described. Secretary Clinton should take a strong interest in Chen getting into a U.S. law school quickly and the Chinese government letting him go to one with his family beside him.

Dan Blumenthal is resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

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About the Author


  • Dan Blumenthal is the director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and Sino-American relations.  Mr. Blumenthal has both served in and advised the U.S. government on China issues for over a decade.  From 2001 to 2004, he served as senior director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia at the Department of Defense.  Additionally, he served as a commissioner on the congressionally-mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission since 2006-2012, and held the position of vice chairman in 2007.  He has also served on the Academic Advisory Board of the congressional U.S.-China Working Group. Mr. Blumenthal is the co-author of "An Awkward Embrace: The United States and China in the 21st Century" (AEI Press, November 2012).

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