NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. After 19 months in house arrest, a blind Chinese dissident named Chen Guangcheng escaped, it's widely believed, to the safety of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. That news comes as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner arrive for a conference planned to focus on economics.
Now that agenda could also expand to cover the Obama administration's plans to sell new fighter jets to Taiwan and to the U.S. role in the still-developing mystery of the now-disgraced former Central Committee member Bo Xilai.
Human rights are of course important, but how important when China holds so much U.S. debt, manufactures so many of our consumer products, when the administration hopes for Chinese support on North Korea and Syria and Iran? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, a White House advisor breaks the official silence on drone strikes. We'll listen to a big chunk of an important speech. But first, China, the U.S. and human rights. Rob Gifford is China editor for The Economist, of course NPR's former China correspondent. He joins us now from the BBC studios in Oxford. Rob, we can't keep you off the program.
ROB GIFFORD: It's good to be back, Neal.
CONAN: And I have to begin by asking you: This escape from house arrest to, what, some 350 miles from Beijing, this is a remarkable story.
GIFFORD: It is a remarkable story when you consider how they - how hard they were trying on the ground in the village where he lived to keep him in. They'd built a huge wall. They had dozens of security people around it. And somehow, a blind man on his own, with a little bit of help once he got out, managed to get out. It's an extraordinary story.
CONAN: And now arrived, we think, at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. And it puts him and it puts the United States in a delicate position.
GIFFORD: It does. It puts - and it puts the whole relationship in a delicate position, which is why we haven't heard anything about it from either side. You can imagine - I mean, I've spoken to people who are involved in the escape, and they say they are 100 percent certain he is under U.S. protection. So I think there is probably a lot of negotiating going on behind the scenes.
And the big difference here, I think, is, compared with other activists and dissidents in the past, is that Mr. Chen has said very clearly he does not want to leave China.
His treatment on the ground in this very rural part of Shandong Province was very bad. He served a four-year prison sentence on what many believe were trumped-up charges. But he has said - he's 40 years old. He has said he does not want to leave China. And that I'm sure is the complicating issue because otherwise he would probably have been on a plane already with perhaps a scholarship to a major law school in the United States in his pocket.
CONAN: There are also the issue of his family. His wife and children are still there, as other relatives. They have reportedly been beaten up several times by these guards. And remind us: Yes, he did a prison term, but he's not currently under any charges, and as I understand it, there is no such thing as a formal house arrest system in China, all of this extra-legal.
GIFFORD: Exactly. And what happens often in China is that basically the local Communist Party secretary is really the king in his own fiefdom there, and if you do things which cause problems for him, he can call on all sorts of powers to do this to you. Sometimes, it's with the approval of higher authorities, and sometimes it isn't.
And I think in this case, the interesting thing is that until about 2005, Chen Guangcheng was being lauded by local authorities, and even authorities higher up, for his activism on behalf of the rights of disabled people. He, hiHeHe mself, has been blind since childhood. He taught himself the law. He is completely - he taught himself everything, basically. He had a very basic education himself as a young man. And he was helping the disabled, and they said that was great.
But there is a line in China that you can't step over, and he stepped over it and started mobilizing to try and use the law to gain protection for - especially for women who were being forced to have abortions and to be forcibly sterilized under the country's one-child policy.
CONAN: Also you mentioned he wanted to stay in China. He issued a challenge on the Web, in a video that he posted to the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, saying: You call yourself a reformer. I'm being held here against the law. Is this - either you should enforce the law and get me free, or is this being controlled by higher-ups?
GIFFORD: That's right, and I mean, this is the 21st-century version of a time-honored Chinese tradition of basically petitioning the emperor, and this has always gone on. And many Chinese people believe and have always believed that the emperor himself, in this case the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, is good and benevolent, and really it's only the dreadful local officials who are causing the problems.
And, you know, sometimes that has been true in history, and sometimes it is true to some extent today. Often it is the local officials causing the problems. By appealing to Wen Jiabao in very respectful terms, though, in this video that was put on YouTube, you know, he has raised the profile of his appeal. He's brought himself to the notice of the central authorities, if they didn't know about him already, which I'm sure they did.
But he has also, yes, raised the stakes, and he has raised - you know, he's saying basically I'm not a criminal, I haven't done anything wrong, I just want you to respect the rule of law, and that's what this all comes down to. He is trying just to get the Chinese Communist Party to respect the rule of law.
The laws, it has a very complete book of laws, of respecting - of people's rights and to believe and do whatever they want. It's just that those laws are not adhered to, and all the power remains in the hands of the Communist Party leaders all the way down the food chain.
CONAN: And that brings up again the amazing case of Bo Xilai and his wife. We are finding out more details of what happened, including what happened the last time a prominent Chinese went to U.S. consular protection, in this case, this was Bo Xilai's vice-mayor and former police chief, apparently in fear of his life from his former boss, went to a U.S. consular office and said my boss is about to kill me because I asked him about murder charges against his wife.
GIFFORD: Yes, I mean, you couldn't - you really couldn't make it up, could you? I mean, it's just - and in terms of, you know, news from China, China, there's amazing things happening all the time, and it's a very sort of documentary news story, if you like, the rise of China.
And as someone said, you know, it's - in terms of big news stories that are happening, it's like London buses. You wait ages for one to come along, and then two come along at the same time, and in terms...
CONAN: You lived along the banana line, too, they always come in bunches.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GIFFORD: That's right. And in fact, I think it's very interesting, though, especially as Hillary Clinton and Tim Geithner arrive in Beijing that this is happening, and you have two very high-profile fugitives, essentially, both really fearing for their lives. Where are you going to go? Your life is in danger, where is the place I can go? And guess what? They both said: I'm going to the American embassy or consulate.
And I think that says a huge amount. It says a huge amount for the lack of rule of law in China despite the many, many amazing things that are going on in China, the fantastic things and the improvement in many people's lives that is happening right the way across China. The lack of rule of law for anyone who falls foul of the authorities is still very apparent.
And I think that that shines the spotlight, really, on America's role still, and there's been much - there's much propaganda, if you like, that comes out of Washington, and there's much sort of patriotic chest-beating that goes on, but in the end, America is still seen as a beacon of those freedoms. And I think the pressure is very much on Hillary Clinton to fulfill that role and to stand as the guarantor of some of those freedoms in these cases.
CONAN: Well, in the first case, though, of Mr. Wong, he was not turned over to the forces of Bo Xilai.
GIFFORD: Yes, sorry, I should say Chen. I mean generally speaking.
CONAN: No, I understand, but in the case of Mr. Wang, he was turned over to authorities in Beijing, where he apparently had some friends. He was - his life was not put in danger. But he was apparently not the - not Caesar's wife, shall we say, and the United States was not going to provide him sanctuary. I think it's very different for Mr. Chen, no?
GIFFORD: It is, it is very different. I apologize. It's Mr. Chen I'm really talking about, but it is interesting. I mean, Wang Lijun really thought he was going to be killed, I think. He was fearing for his life, and that was the point I was making was that that was the place that he decided to run for.
Now what happened, of course, is that he was denied asylum, if that is what he was seeking, and we have to sort of say we really don't know. And in the end, I think, that is part and was part of a big power struggle that was going on at the upper levels of the Communist Party, with all the sort of bizarre details that are now coming out, and who knows how many of them can be believed.
I personally think that the Chen Guangcheng incident is much more important for what it says about China generally. It's not about one specific incident. It's not about one specific power struggle, interesting and important though those things are down in Chongqing and at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu.
Chen Guangcheng gets much more to the very heart of where China is, you know, where it's at with its development, where it's at with the rule of law. This is a guy who just wants to serve the people of China, to make their lives better. And there are people - this is the other important thing: There are people like him right the way across China.
He's become kind of the poster boy of activism, if you like, in China, and he's a very noticeable one, recognizable one, because he's blind and because of his personal situation, but all over China in all counties there are people liking him who are trying to do this and who are struggling against the odds. In a situation, as I say, where many lives have been improved, there is still this issue of rule of law that is meaning that many people's lives are not.
CONAN: And let's throw another pressure point into the mix, an old one: Taiwan. We'll continue our conversation with Rob Gifford in just a moment. This is NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. China and the U.S. this week face a perfect storm, as one analyst put it. There's a dissident widely believed to be under the protection of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, a plan to sell new U.S. fighter jets to Taiwan, the ongoing political murder mystery involving a former provincial communist leader, the U.S. hopes for Chinese support on Iran, North Korea and Syria.
Chris Johnson, a former CIA China analyst, said this could be the biggest bilateral mess we've faced in a very long time, all just as Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, and Tim Geithner, secretary of treasury, arrive in Beijing for long-planned talks on the economy.
Human rights are important, of course, but how important? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our guest is Rob Gifford, now China editor for The Economist. Susan Shirk now joins us, former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, now professor of China and Pacific Relations at the University of California San Diego. And good of you to be with us today.
SUSAN SHIRK: Thank you very much.
CONAN: And is this a perfect storm of a mess?
SHIRK: It certainly is. And I remain a bit optimistic that all of these shocks may jolt the Chinese leadership into taking some positive steps to try to restore their reputation in the aftermath of the revelations of criminality and corruption related to the Bo Xilai affair and now Chen Guangcheng's petition to Premier Wen Jiabao and that just maybe they will see this as an opportunity on the eve of their leadership turnover to take some modest steps in the direction of political reform.
CONAN: Much of the Central Committee is being replaced later this year. That was - some of that was involved in the maneuvering over Bo Xilai, but let me ask you: The administration could not have anticipated that a dissident would flee to the embassy, of course, but just before the secretaries of state and treasury are set to arrive in Beijing, the White House issues a letter pretty much confirming that it's changed its mind and will now sell fighter jets to Taiwan. That can't be a mistake in timing.
SHIRK: Oh no, actually, the timing is related to getting the confirmation of a senior official in the Defense Department, and a member of Congress had put a hold on the nomination.
CONAN: John Cornyn, senator from Texas.
SHIRK: Right, until - Senator Cornyn until he got - you know, he was assured - he cares about these fighter jets. I assume that - Lockheed-Martin is of course based in Texas, and that he wanted the White House to say that they would sell these jets. The White House satisfied him by saying that they would give it serious consideration, which really is not much of anything. So it was really a U.S. domestic political story.
CONAN: All right, so the Chinese aren't going to respond to this, you don't think?
SHIRK: Oh no, the Chinese always respond to anything we do related to Taiwan arm sales, but - and in fact they could respond quite strongly in the talks with Secretary Clinton because they're going to have to cover that flank if they're going to make any compromises on Chen Guangcheng.
CONAN: Is it conceivable to you - what kind of outcome do you anticipate on this man?
SHIRK: I expect that they will allow him to leave and to rid themselves of the problem. I - if they don't allow him to stay in China and don't allow him to leave, and he remains under our protection in China for an extended period of time, that will really be extraordinarily difficult for the bilateral relationship.
So much as they will hate to allow him to leave, I don't think it's an option to allow him to stay because even though that's his first choice, and we also would like that because maybe again that will signify some move to show they really respect rule of law, it would probably be combined with firing the local officials and, you know, some strong gestures, at least in the direction of rule of law.
That would be the best outcome, but how do we monitor his situation? How do we assure ourselves of the good treatment of Mr. Chen, his family and his associates? It's hard for me to see how it could be done.
CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Let's turn to Dan(ph), Dan with us from Buffalo.
DAN: Hey, my one question is: If we end up getting, you know, all these rights made for him and guarantees of freedom and everything, how do we know that that's not just a smoke-and-mirrors kind of thing that gets us pushed off, and when he gets back, they just remove him completely by either killing him or, you know, oppressed him even more and making it impossible, inspiring those - or harming those who help him get out just so they don't, you know, if you do it again, and they set an example.
And my second question is, this one kind of came up when I was talking to a friend on hold: We don't communicate very well with Cuba, from my understanding, because they're a communist nation. That's what I've been always been told. I could be 100 percent wrong. But we're OK with talking to Russia and China. Can you comment on that and either clarify or figure out what's wrong with this?
CONAN: Russia formerly a communist nation, but Rob Gifford, on that first point, is there any way that we can guarantee Mr. Chen's safety if he does stay in China?
GIFFORD: No, there's not, quite apart from the domestic implications in the United States of any - of the - you know, of Hillary Clinton essentially and the diplomats in Beijing agreeing to release Chen Guangcheng back to what they would say is not Chinese custody but basically to hand him back to the Chinese. I think it would be very difficult to monitor even though if you're talking about wanting to push forward the rule of the law and the development of the rule of law in China, that would probably be the thing that you would want to do.
The problem with letting him get on a plane and persuading him to get on a plane because that's what we understand, that he needs to be persuaded, he doesn't want to go, is that he will be taken out of the mix. And so that will be the problem off the hands of the Chinese, and they won't do anything more in order to move towards more rule of law until the next guy comes along and causes them a problem.
Nothing is being dealt structurally at all with - because they're worried about the implications of moving down that road of any kind of even minor political reform. I think that, you know, if he leaves the country, that just gives China more space just to go back to what it was doing before until another case blows up.
CONAN: And Susan Shirk, on Dan's other point, you spoke of the domestic political implications of the F-16 reconsideration. Certainly Cuba comes into that, as well.
SHIRK: Certainly. I'm not going to comment on U.S. policy toward Cuba because that's way outside my expertise, and it seems pretty irrational but very American.
CONAN: Dan, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Steven, and Steven with us from Wyndham, Connecticut.
STEVEN: Hey, thanks, TALK OF THE NATION, for taking my call and letting me have my say. I kind of agree with one of Dan's points, that we should really hold the line for this blind guy because we're holding the line for not just that one guy but for everybody in China that's looking up for us, not only in China but all around the world. If we drop the ball on this one guy, people are going to go, like, you know, hey, they're not all that special. We've got to hold the line, fellows and ladies.
CONAN: And what does holding the line entail?
STEVEN: Well, if he doesn't want to leave, let him stay in the embassy. I - you see, that's the tricky part. If he doesn't want to leave, what are we going to do, let him stay in the embassy? We've got to - there's some way we've got to integrate this guy back into Chinese society.
CONAN: Susan Shirk, I'm certainly old enough to remember Catholic cardinals living in U.S. embassies behind the Iron Curtain for decades. This is, to put it mildly, extremely awkward.
SHIRK: It's really a tragic situation because if Chen Guangcheng leaves China, his influence, his role in pushing positive change forward will end, and he has so much to contribute. So it really is very tragic. And of course if he's holed up in the embassy for a long period of time, he's really not going to be able to play a normal role in China, either. We'll have to keep him quiet. You know, frankly it'll be a new form of house arrest. It'll be terrible.
So it's just a very tragic situation which really points to the negative direction China has taken in the past few years of allowing the security apparatus to just balloon to such a large size and dominate so much of Chinese politics.
CONAN: And Rob Gifford - Steven, thanks for the call. Rob Gifford, you say you've spoken to some of Mr. Chen's friends, those who helped him manufacture this escape. Given he's no dummy - he had to know these were his options - what made him so desperate as to make the climb over that wall in the dark and escape to the U.S. embassy?
GIFFORD: Very interesting question. And I haven't got to the bottom of that. I'm not sure anybody has. Either his situation under house arrest was so desperate that he just - or there were some greater threats to his life in some way that we don't know about, that he knew - as I mentioned earlier - that this was the only chance of getting - of safety of some sort. Or he was persuaded to do so without fully knowing the consequences. And that, I think, is slightly difficult to believe, just because, you know, he is just a rural activist.
So he's not some highly educated guy, but he's a fairly savvy kind of guy in a lot of the things that he has done. And it does surprise me slightly, because he must have known that if he got into the embassy, you know, the choices might well be limited - or else he was very naive about that.
CONAN: And the fact that China is covering up - suppressing all reporting on this story inside China - I guess that comes as no surprise, either.
GIFFORD: No. That's right. I mean, they did the same with Bo Xilai, Wang Lijun down in Chongqing. But, as always, I mean, in so many ways, the microblogs, there are 300 million people on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter talking to each other, tweeting about these things. They found a lot of ways to get round the bans and the censorship. I heard - in fact, I haven't checked this, but I was just reading that everyone is using these code words. And the most recent one that people are using is the phrase "Shawshank Redemption" to talk about the movie...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GIFFORD: ...where the guy hides his clothes to make it look as though he's in the bed, which is what Chen Guangcheng apparently did. So they use these code words to get around it. And, I mean, I think in so many ways, the genie is out of the bottle in terms of people talking to each other and being empowered by that experience. I think the general - there's often talk about this censorship issue, and it's very real, and people are prevented from saying things and searching for things that they want to search for.
But there is a sort of empowerment in just being online in China and being on the microblogs, even if you can't necessarily talk about these specific issues. And, you know, you've got tens of thousands of censors, and they can track you down if you say something controversial. But, as I say, there's 300 million people on there. They can't track every tweet. And there is a lot of impact that just having the power to tweet like that, even on non-sensitive issues, is bringing to the people of China.
CONAN: Rob Gifford of The Economist magazine. Susan Shirk also with us, professor of China and Pacific Relations at the University of California, San Diego. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's go to Monica, Monica calling from Buffalo.
MONICA: Yes. Hi.
MONICA: I wanted to throw into the mix the - into the mix of the discussion the fact that we are so tightly involved with China economically, as in importing so many of their goods, including electronics, to the United States, and who knows what they're implanting there, possibly. But I wonder if that could somehow play in our favor to free this guy?
CONAN: Susan Shirk, we are their market. They are our banker, to put it very, very broadly indeed. Does not that give us some leverage, here?
SHIRK: Well, theoretically, I suppose it does. But realistically, having boycotts of Chinese goods - citizen boycotts very rarely are effective in any historical time and place. And for the United States to impose trade sanctions at this point, I think, we're too worried about starting off a protectionist trade war, given that the global economy is so much down in the dumps. So I don't think it's a kind of leverage - that it's very difficult for us to use without shooting ourselves in the foot.
CONAN: Thank you, Monica. And another issue we've failed to talk about in terms of human rights is the perennial one of Tibet. We have more and more monks immolating themselves to protest Chinese policies in that part of the world. And that, it seems, Susan Shirk, that's bound to come up, too.
SHIRK: Oh, for sure. That is another perennial subject of discussion and focus of great frustration on the part of the United States. When I was in government, we thought we were making some progress when President Clinton and President Jiang Zemin, in a televised press conference, discussed the Dalai Lama. And President Clinton urged Jiang Zemin to have - open up a dialogue with him, but they're just very hard-over. And it's a very frustrating issue.
CONAN: And, Rob Gifford, given these - given the stakes involved here, the secretary of state has to tread very carefully.
GIFFORD: Yes, I think she does. I think she's got - even before Chen Guangcheng jumped over the wall of the embassy, or whatever it was that he did, I think, as always, there are a huge number of issues on her plate. And, of course, the China-U.S. relationship is the big relationship. And this is really the difficult path that she is having to walk. There are all these issues - strategic and economic - between China and the United States. And she's having to juggle all of those, as is Tim Geithner.
But alongside that now, she has this big issue of human rights, which her - perhaps had received less focus. And she was criticized in 2009 for suggesting they weren't going to put as much focus on human rights during the Obama administration. And so she is having to juggling - to juggle all these things, push - putting pressure on China, and to maintain a stable relationship, which is crucial for the world at the same time. So it's a very, very difficult task.
CONAN: Rob Gifford, as always, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.
GIFFORD: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Rob Gifford, China editor for The Economist. Susan Shirk, we appreciate your coming in today, as well.
SHIRK: My pleasure.
CONAN: Susan Shirk, the former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, with us from our bureau in New York. Coming up, a White House official says, for the first time in public: Yes, the U.S. uses drones to attack terrorist targets. Stay with us. It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.