By Gordon G. Chang, Special to CNN
Editor’s Note: Gordon G. Chang is a columnist at Forbes.com. He is the author of “The Coming Collapse of China” and “Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gordon G. Chang.
The drama surrounding Chen Guangcheng highlights — again — America’s role as refuge for Chinese citizens.
Late last month, the blind activist, after a request for protection, entered the U.S. embassy in Beijing, smuggled in under the noses of Chinese security agents.
By taking him in, the U.S. had chosen sides in the increasingly volatile confrontation between the Chinese people and China’s Communist Party. Washington, by its actions, had implicitly stated that the rights of citizens were more important than the sovereignty of the People’s Republic. It was a blatant interference in China’s internal affairs — and it was the right thing to do.
Moreover, Washington revealed how weak the Chinese regime is by getting it to extend guarantees of Chen’s safety. In short, Beijing, after negotiations with a foreign government, made agreements relating to its treatment of one of its own nationals on its own soil.
True, Chinese officials violated those promises almost as soon as they were made. But the fact that Beijing extended guarantees was stunning in and of itself. After all, Renmin University’s Jin Canrong, just days before the Chinese government issued the “four assurances,” said it was “absolutely impossible” for Beijing to guarantee Chen’s safety.
The United States, therefore, helped Chen lift the fear that has prevented change in Chinese society. His flight to the heart of Communist power demonstrated that people have started to lose their fear of the party. In fact, many of those who helped in the “great escape” publicized their roles, showing a defiance rarely seen since the Beijing Spring of 1989.
Authoritarian governments crumble when citizens no longer feel intimidated. As journalist Fred Coleman noted about the Soviet Union, “Once the fear was gone, the system could not last.”
None of this is to say that the U.S. is seeking to end China’s current form of government. It is to say, however, that its actions, occurring at a time of great societal stress, can irrevocably change the Chinese political system.
The U.S. did not seek out Chen. Chen, through his supporters, presented the U.S. with a situation to which it had to respond. Either decision — to help or not — would substantially alter the course of events.
Chen’s supporters followed the playbook of Wang Lijun. At the beginning of February, the Chinese official entered the U.S. consulate in the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, seeking refuge from his boss, Bo Xilai, then the Communist Party secretary of Chongqing.
Bo, to prevent Wang from getting away, sent hundreds of armed security troops across provincial lines to surround the consulate. They failed in this task because agents of the Ministry of State Security took custody instead and accompanied him back to Beijing.
Washington did not grant protection to Wang. But by refusing to take him in, it unwittingly precipitated a crisis that now looks like it has split the top of the Communist Party.
Wang’s allegations, made in Beijing, triggered a series of events: certainly a purge of the charismatic Bo; the detention of his wife on charges of murder; and possibly a coup and assassination attempt in Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party headquarters in the center of Beijing. The consequences of Washington’s decision to not take in Wang have now roiled China and jeopardized the transition from the so-called Fourth Generation leaders, led by General Secretary Hu Jintao, to the Fifth Generation, presumably under the command of Vice President Xi Jinping.
Again, the U.S. was put in a position where a decision would — one way or another — affect the outcome of a defining struggle inside China. And it is unlikely that China’s people or its officials will stop looking to America for assistance, refuge and support. As Chinese society becomes even more turbulent, Washington will have a large role in determining China’s future, whether it wants that role or not.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gordon G. Chang.