Still many Chens in China
Leaders of China and the United States showed G2-like cooperation in their swift stitch-up of a diplomatic gulf last week. We welcome Beijing’s decision to let Chen Guangcheng, a lawyer-turned-activist who is blind, to study in the United States, but not without some leeriness.
It was a face-saving, trouble-minimizing conclusion for both the U.S. and Chinese governments. Beijing and Washington are busy preparing for leadership change or renewal, and have their hands full already without one more diplomatic headache. And they could live with a little criticism from political opponents for some diplomatic blunders and/or weakness.
The ongoing episode illustrates why it will take China a long time to surpass the United States as a global leader if at all.
If Bo Xilai’s rise and fall showed how unchecked power could corrupt within the socialist giant, Chen Guangcheng’s plight tells how the rigid system could not absorb popular sentiment and appeals on a grassroots level.
The working-class Chinese currently have no rights to organize themselves to better represent their interests, little freedom in religious matters and have not much leeway even in having and raising children. The various minority peoples in the Middle Kingdom express difficulties in preserving traditional culture and racial identity, as shown by a tragic series of self-immolation in Tibet.
Chinese leaders have quenched this thirst for a freer and more self-reliant society with economic growth and better living standards. So far so good. But the irony of this approach is the more successful it is, the harder it becomes to control. It’s one of the human traits that materialistic wealth leads to the quest for corresponding freedom and participation. The Chinese communist party has long handled it skillfully, but has yet to face a real challenge.
Its first test may come when Beijing will have to decide how to treat Chen if he decides to come back to China and engage in a human rights crusade. The same question will likely apply to Washington, too, for similar reasons. Just as Chen is the most common family name in China, so many like Chen Guangcheng will emerge.
Koreans can’t help but pay unusual attention to the human rights situation in China not least because there are millions of ethnic Koreans living in the giant neighbor, including tens of thousands of North Korean refugees.
A country cannot be a global leader with just economic power and military might.