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Blind dissident highlights 'maturity' in US-China relations

The spat over Chen Guangcheng has taken US-Chinese relations to a new level of communication. Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brokings Institution in Washington talked to DW about the transformation.

Kenneth Lieberthal is director of the John L. Thornton China Center and a senior fellow in foreign policy and global economy and development at the Brookings Institution. He recently published a study titled Addressing US-China Strategic Distrust.

DW: Mr. Lieberthal, earlier this year you published a study called "Adressing US-China Strategic Distrust." Now the unresolved fate of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng seems to be further eroding the already shaky trust between Washington and Beijing. What is the impact of the Chen case on the bilateral relations?

Kenneth Lieberthal: I think that the issue of Mr. Chen that has attracted so much attention this week and is clearly not yet resolved as we speak, is one that actually on one level highlights that the US and China were able to discuss this kind of issue in a very pragmatic fashion - each side seeking to get a relatively rapid resolution that minimizes tensions between the two governments and - I stress this very strongly - that met the core demands of Mr. Chen. The agreement that was negotiated by the US negotiators with their Chinese counterparts was frankly better - given Mr. Chen's requirements - than what I thought could be negotiated when this began. So given how they usually handle these issues, I think the Chinese were really quite forthcoming. The US fully protected Mr. Chen's priorities and reached an agreement that met those priorities. And you should keep in mind that his number-one requirement was that he be able to remain in China. But that he and his family not be subjected to the abuse by Shandong local officials that they had been subjected to.

In this photo released by the US Embassy Beijing Press Office, blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, left, is helped by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, right, and U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke as they leave the U.S. Embassy for a hospital in Beijing Wednesday May 2, 2012. (Foto:US Embassy Beijing Press Office, HO/AP/dapd)

Chen left the US embassy in Beijing and was transferred to a hospital

These requirements were met. After Mr. Chen had left the US embassy, he then spoke to friends of his who convinced him that no agreement with the Chinese government would be honored over time and therefore he changed his mind and repudiated the agreement.

So in terms of the US-China relationship, I think actually this highlighted that this has become a relatively mature relationship. Even on a highly emotional issue, a very contentious issue like human rights, we were able to come to a good agreement on how to handle this. The fact that the individual concerned then repudiated the agreement later is obviously a complication. But I don't think it should affect the views of each government about the other in handling this. And each government wanted to be able both to handle this and to have it not interact on the strategic and economic dialogue which takes up other issues of enormous importance for each country, for Asia, in fact for the world. (…)

In your study "Addressing US-China Strategic Distrust" your partner from Beijing University points out that America's democracy promotion agenda is understood in China as "designed to sabotage the Communist Party's leadership" and that taking up the issues of democracy and human rights seems to be seen as an American effort to divide and weaken China. Do you think the Chen case is reinforcing this Chinese prejudice?

There is that possibility that this case will add to these suspicions on that issue. But I would remind you, that the Chen Guangcheng case is a little distinctive in that he has not argued for the change of the Chinese political system. He has not argued for a multi-party democracy. He is not an advocate, as far as I know, for broad legally based human rights. What he has been a strong advocate for is for China to stop the practice of forced abortions, which he objected to, led a class action law suite in a county where he lives in Shandong province. And from then on he has suffered gravely. So he has become a human rights icon in china. But he is not one of the dissidents in China who says that the system is irredeemable, that the system needs to change to a democratic political system. He has said that the law needs to be implemented, that the policies need to be implemented without local abuses that create grotesque violations of basic human rights. The way the Chinese government handled this initially in this agreement that was reached with the US negotiators was effectively to say: we will investigate violations of law in this county. And we will remove Mr. Chen and his family from the jurisdiction of those abusive officials. So this was not an issue of overall democratic change in China. This was more an issue of the sanctity of law and fairness of the system. And it was treated on that level. (…)

Hillary Clinton did not go to Beijing accompanied by roughly 200 American officials to discuss the fate of Chen Guangcheng, but instead to discuss a host of other issues at the 4th US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Do you think there was any room for those issues once the Chen case made it to the headlines?

It certainly has focused press attention on the Chen issue rather than on the other issues. For the actual discussions and the dialogue, let's face it: For the top people this certainly is on their minds and is occupying some of their time. The US ambassador has recently given a press conference. Kurt Campell has given a press conference. Hillary Clinton has put out a statement and so forth. So certainly it is having an impact. As far as I know, the substantive discussions have gone as planned. So it has not preempted the substance of these meetings. But it certainly has complicated it and has drained everybody's energy. These meetings tend to be extremely taxing as they are. I served in the Clinton administration. We did not have the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. But I do know, when you had top officials travel for major meetings, everyone traveling with them goes on to virtually 24-hour schedule, just in terms of making sure the meeting is set up and runs properly and is followed up properly. So to add this kind of issue to that kind of agenda, even for the US embassy, it already was at the limits of its capacity, simply trying to manage having several hundred US officials and staff show up at this meeting. And on top of that to have this other case clearly creates an enormous strain.

Chen Guangchen, right, with his son, and wife, left

Chen said he feared for his own and his family's safety

What were the main issues at stake on the original agenda?

We began with what's termed the Strategic Security Dialogue, the SSD (on Wednesday) which ran for about 5 hours and that addressed the issues of maritime security and cyber security with both civilian and military representatives in the room on both sides. Those are two extraordinarily important issues. (…) In the Strategic Dialogue as part of the SED we had Iran, Syria, North Korea, South China Sea as major parts of the dialogue. And then there are hosts of other related issues that arise. (…)

Interview: Matthias von Hein
Editor: Sarah Berning

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