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The Failure of “Quiet Diplomacy” in China

When Chinese anti-forced-abortion activist and dissident Chen Guangcheng attempted to use Hillary Clinton’s visit to China earlier this year to get his family to safety abroad, his efforts and those of the State Department appeared to have failed just hours before a deal was struck to save Chen. The narrative of that story held that a Republican House committee chaired by Chris Smith–which called a hearing on the case as it was developing–and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney had behaved recklessly in drawing such public attention to the case and appearing to hand down judgment on the case before diplomacy had a chance to work.

Typical of this attitude was a comment from Chinese politics expert Steve Tsang to the U.K. Guardian, as the story unfolded: “Public diplomacy or grandstanding will limit the scope for quiet diplomacy.” We have plenty of counterexamples in recent history that challenge this theory, but it appears now we don’t need to employ them. The full picture of Chen’s case comes to us in Susan Glasser’s Foreign Policy magazine cover profile of Clinton, at the very beginning and very end of the piece (everything in between is gauzy admiration terminally wounded by the article’s repeated and gauche comparison of Clinton to Aung San Suu Kyi).

Here is the key paragraph:

Still, the Chinese did not give in. At one point, an advisor who was present recalled, Clinton finally seemed to catch their attention by mentioning what a political circus the case had become — with Chen even dialing in to a U.S. congressional hearing that Thursday by cell phone from his hospital bed to say he feared for his safety if he remained in China. The Chinese team was visibly surprised. Eventually, Dai agreed at least to let the negotiations proceed. A few hours later, exhausted U.S. officials announced a deal.

Again, this is not terribly surprising, nor does it detract from the hard work of Clinton, who was there on the ground to carry out tough, and ultimately successful, negotiations. But it is always omitted from official accounts of the story, possibly because no one knew this before Glasser’s article. It turns out that Clinton got a nice boost from a game-changer: Republicans in Congress who made Chen’s plight as visible and public as possible, convincing the Chinese the game was out of the shadows and the world was watching.

Then, at the end of the article, we have one more piece of information. It is speculative, and Glasser acknowledges this, so we should take it with a grain of salt:

What would it take for her to run again for president in 2016? “Nothing,” she replied quickly. Then she laughed. Even the Chinese, she said, had asked her about it at Wednesday night’s dinner, suggesting she should run. They were “saying things like, ‘Well, you know, I mean 2016 is not so far away.… You may retire, but you’re very young,’” Clinton recalled.

Maybe, I ventured, that’s why they had in the end been willing to accommodate her on Chen; they were investing in a future with a possible President Clinton.

Clinton played coy and wouldn’t answer the question, but obviously there is something to it. In any case, it seems “quiet diplomacy” got nowhere until Chris Smith turned up the volume back home.



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