What Chen Guangcheng’s Arrival in America Means

What Chen Guangcheng’s Arrival in America Means

VIEW FROM ASIA |   | May 19, 2012, 7:49 PM.
Chen Guangcheng, in glasses at microphones, speaks to the media at his temporary residence in New York on May 19th.Dave Sanders for The New York TimesChen Guangcheng, in glasses at microphones, speaks to the media at his temporary residence in New York on May 19th.

 

The world seemed to be watching United Flight 88 from Beijing to Newark, New Jersey, across the bay from New York City, as Chen Chenguang, made his way with his wife and two children out of China.

In a face-saving compromise, the Chinese activist was headed to the United States to study on a law fellowship at New York University — not to seek asylum.

That Mr. Chen landed at Newark Liberty International Airport on Saturday evening local time was lost on no one. Though how he made time for the check-in formalities might have been. Mr. Chen seemed to be on his cell nonstop talking to international news media, as has been the case during the month he spent in a hospital in Beijing.

As Time magazine’s Hannah Beech reported: “Seven long years of various forms of detention should have taken a greater toll. Yet each phone conversation we at Time have had with him, Chen has surprised us with his calm, soft-spoken demeanor. But early on the afternoon on May 19, Chen’s voice changed. He was positively ecstatic, his excitement thrumming over the phone line. ‘I’m at the airport, and I’m going to the U.S.,’ he told my colleague Chengcheng Jiang. ‘I’m standing in line and about to go through the security check.’ ”

“I don’t know when I’ll come back, but I’ll definitely come back,” Mr. Chen said in a telephone interview broadcast today by Hong Kong Cable Television, Bloomberg News reported.

The Wall Street Journal had a brief interview with Mr. Chen’s wife. The Journal reported, “Yuan Weijing said they had left the Beijing hospital where they had been staying without any interaction with Chinese officials. She said they received passports shortly after arriving at the airport.

“They came in and told us to get everything together at 12:30 and we left at 1 o’clock,” the Journal reported Ms. Yuan as saying.

“They had been driven directly to Beijing International Airport by employees of Chaoyang Hospital, where Mr. Chen was being treated for intestinal problems and for the foot he broke during his escape,” my colleagues Andrew Jacobs and Steven Lee Myers wrote. “Once on board, flight attendants promptly drew a curtain around their business class seats and barred other passengers in the cabin from using the toilet while the plane was on the runway.”

It was unclear how Chinese media inside China were covering the story, or if Mr. Chen was still missing from coverage in China itself, as Rendezvous reported last week.

In mature superpower relationships, like the one between the United States and the U.S.S.R., relatively small-potato crises often lead to negotiated settlements — there is too much at stake, strategically, politically, economically — for things to end otherwise.

Indeed, such run-ins — which can be over principles and people that are, of course, important in their own right, just not as important as the entire relationship between the powers — can often lead to better understanding and the development of ways to cooperate and defuse confrontation. Developments that are crucial to the peaceful cohabitation of great powers whose actions and interests are bound to conflict from time to time (or more often) as they go about their global role.

Could the Chen episode be one of those opportunities for the burgeoning U.S.-China superpower rivalry?

As Andrew and Steven wrote, “The American role in aiding Mr. Chen — spiriting him into the embassy after he escaped with the help of other dissidents — infuriated the Chinese, who complained fiercely about what they considered interference in their internal affairs, but in the end they quietly engaged with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and a team of diplomats to defuse what could have evolved into a full-blown diplomatic crisis.”

Of course, the relationship between China and the United States is not the epoch-defining test that the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union was, yet. And many students of international relations argue it does not have to be.

After all, who could imagine The Empire State Building being adorned in the colors of the Soviet Union’s flag on 60th anniversary of its founding, asit was for China’s?

Of course, deals can unravel. For instance, what happens if Mr. Cheng decides to seek asylum in the United States after all? Many observers see those remaining in China after Mr. Chen’s departure — including his mother, whose home, Time magazine reports, is being surrounded by electric fencing, and his dissident colleagues, including those who helped him make his daring escape —provide Beijing with an unsavory insurance policy.

Who can tell us what the Chinese media are reporting?