Blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng’s arrival in New York over the weekend ended a standoff between the U.S. and China that strained ties for the world’s two biggest economies.
Chen, whose stay at the U.S. embassy in Beijing overshadowed a bilateral summit earlier this month, moved into a Manhattan apartment after leaving Beijing May 19 on a United Airlines flight with his wife and two children. He has a fellowship to study law at New York University.
His departure marked the end to an incident that saw China demand an apology from the U.S., whose diplomats shepherded Chen into the embassy after his escape from more than a year of extrajudicial house arrest. With Chen now in New York, the two sides can return to nurturing a relationship that has progressed to a point that a case like his can be handled without a serious rupture, said Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“It reinforces the trend since late 2010 for the two leaderships to find a way to steer around sensitive subjects and promote pragmatic near-term relations,” Paal said.
Along with longstanding disputes over intellectual property rights and the yuan exchange rate, China and the U.S. are grappling with diplomatic issues such as nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. On May 17, the U.S. imposed tariffs on Chinese-made solar cells to aid domestic manufacturers, a move that China’s Ministry of Commerce said was “unfair.”
Chen expressed gratitude for the encouragement he received from supporters around the world at a brief news conference on May 19 at New York University. He also said he appreciated the “cool heads” in the Chinese government.
“I hope the Chinese government will continue the course of reform and earn the respect of its people,” Chen said, while adding that he was concerned about further reprisals against supporters and other family members by local authorities.
For President Barack Obama, running for re-election, it puts to rest an issue over which he has been berated by Republicans for not being tough enough on China. Chinese leaders have their own domestic issues to confront, with a once-a-decade leadership transition to begin later this year.
“I think this brings the matter to a close,” Bonnie Glaser, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an e-mail. “Both countries will focus on their domestic politics, upcoming elections in the U.S. and the 18th Party Congress in China later this year.”
Chen and his family will now live in Greenwich Village in Manhattan while he studies law. NYU law professor Jerome Cohen, a friend and supporter, arranged the fellowship to enable Chen to study there.
The U.S. expressed its “appreciation” to the Chinese government “for the manner in which we were able to resolve this matter and support Mr. Chen’s desire to study in the U.S. and pursue his goals,” according to a statement from State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who has publicized Chen’s case, told reporters not to forget that members of Chen’s family remain in China and are in danger.
“Just because Chen Guangcheng is free, not all of the Chens are free,” he told reporters at Newark airport. “There are a large number of family members, his brother and nephew, who now remain at great risk of retaliation.”
After Chen left the U.S. embassy, China demanded an apology for his seeking shelter there. Asked Monday whether China was still seeking that apology, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China noted the U.S. has said it will pay attention to Chinese concerns.
China hopes the U.S. “learns lessons from this incident, changes its relevant policies and practices, and maintains the big picture of China-U.S. relations,” Hong said.
Negotiations over Chen’s future drew attention to human rights violations in China and threatened to derail the Sino-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue earlier this month. After initially departing the embassy on the eve of the summit with a Chinese promise that he would be allowed to live freely in China, Chen said he had changed his mind and wanted to go to the U.S.
A deal was reached for Chen to apply for a passport and accept an offer to study law at NYU.
The agreement “highlights that each can be sensitive to the needs of the other in order to resolve tough and emotional issues, even at a time of very tough domestic politics in both countries,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Cohen, co-director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at the NYU School of Law, stood alongside Chen during his remarks.
“I will continue to work to promote justice and equality in China,” Chen said. “Justice has no borders. The promise by the Chinese government to protect my citizen rights has not ended with my departure. This is a long-term promise with no time limits.”
The next test may occur if Chen decides to return to China, which may not want to have him back, or if he seeks to stay in the U.S. as a political refugee, according to Glaser.
“The challenge will come when Chen decides he wants one, to go back to China; or two, to apply for political asylum in the US,” Glaser said. “I expect that he will focus on learning English and studying law, with periodic statements and commentary on domestic developments in China.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at firstname.lastname@example.org