Commentary Magazine


Topic: Chris Smith

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).

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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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Silence on Dissident’s Pro-Life Activism

Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng is still confined to a hospital in Beijing, and the Chinese government is reportedly dragging its feet on issuing him a passport. As with any case like this, time is not on Chen’s side. With each passing day, media attention and public pressure diminishes. Already, the Chinese government is allegedly holding members of Chen’s family under house arrest. And obviously the crackdown could get worse as the story continues to fade from the front pages.

In an effort to keep attention on the case, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) plans to hold a hearing on Chen’s plight next week, Josh Rogin reports:

In an interview in the Capitol building, Smith said he intends to hold another congressional hearing on May 15 on the Chen case — to follow up on the hearing he held May 3, which Chen actually phoned into. Smith has invited Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and State Department Counselor Harold Koh to the hearing, but those officials have yet to RSVP.

“I don’t think they want the hearing frankly. But we need to keep the focus on this,” Smith said. …

“The administration has hermetically sealed his message, the man and why he was in trouble, from this incident,” Smith told The Cable. “Have you heard anybody talk about that he was defending women from forced abortion? Hillary Clinton? Not a word. I Googled it.”

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Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng is still confined to a hospital in Beijing, and the Chinese government is reportedly dragging its feet on issuing him a passport. As with any case like this, time is not on Chen’s side. With each passing day, media attention and public pressure diminishes. Already, the Chinese government is allegedly holding members of Chen’s family under house arrest. And obviously the crackdown could get worse as the story continues to fade from the front pages.

In an effort to keep attention on the case, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) plans to hold a hearing on Chen’s plight next week, Josh Rogin reports:

In an interview in the Capitol building, Smith said he intends to hold another congressional hearing on May 15 on the Chen case — to follow up on the hearing he held May 3, which Chen actually phoned into. Smith has invited Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and State Department Counselor Harold Koh to the hearing, but those officials have yet to RSVP.

“I don’t think they want the hearing frankly. But we need to keep the focus on this,” Smith said. …

“The administration has hermetically sealed his message, the man and why he was in trouble, from this incident,” Smith told The Cable. “Have you heard anybody talk about that he was defending women from forced abortion? Hillary Clinton? Not a word. I Googled it.”

Smith says the Obama administration hasn’t mentioned Chen’s life’s work – opposition to forced abortions and sterilization – the way it typically has in similar dissident cases. And it may not just be for fear of irritating China. Last year, President Obama released a statement praising the pro-democracy efforts of imprisoned Nobel Laureate and Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo:

All of us have a responsibility to build a just peace that recognizes the inherent rights and dignity of human beings – a truth upheld within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In our own lives, our own countries, and in the world, the pursuit of a just peace remains incomplete, even as we strive for progress. This past year saw the release of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, even as the Burmese people continue to be denied the democracy that they deserve. Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos Horta has continued his tireless work to build a free and prosperous East Timor, having made the transition from dissident to president. And this past year saw the retirement of Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, whose own career demonstrates the universal power of freedom and justice to overcome extraordinary obstacles.

But Mr. Liu reminds us that human dignity also depends upon the advance of democracy, open society, and the rule of law. The values he espouses are universal, his struggle is peaceful, and he should be released as soon as possible.

Is the administration uncomfortable addressing Chen’s pro-life activism for political reasons? Or is there a concern it would be an unnecessary poke at China? Either way, the omissions are unfortunate. Chen’s story has refocused attention on China’s appalling human rights record, which is too often ignored, but his actual activism against forced abortions is rarely mentioned in the media. This is an issue that should get much more attention, and Rep. Smith is right to raise it.

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