Chen Guangcheng's run for freedom has dragged the United States into a tricky international showdown with the Chinese, but one that may actually give both governments a dignified way out of the mess. The U.S. has not officially acknowledged that Chen is in their custody, but there are reports that negotiations are quietly underway to arrange asylum for him and possibly his family. But that's only if it can be done in a way that spares China any more embarrassment — and if it ends before Hillary Clinton and Tim Geithner show up for economic talks on Thursday.
It's been a rough year for the Chinese state so far, particularly when it comes to projecting its image as a fearsome security apparatus. The Bo Xilai scandal has been particularly galling, not just because of the corruption and murder charges, but because of the weaknesses it revealed in the domestic security organization. Bo reportedly wiretapped top members of the Communist Party without their knowledge, and then the man who blew the whistle on him made it to a U.S. consulate before turning himself in. Now a blind man has apparently evaded an army of security guards and made his way to capital, and into the U.S. embassy. Who could be afraid of them now?
Chen says he doesn't want to go the U.S., but wants to remain in China and be free to continue his work. At this point, however, that doesn't seem possible. The Chinese can't simply let him go free within their own country, which would also mean admitting that he was actually under house arrest this whole time. Had he escaped the country completely, without the aid of the Americans, that could have been an even more humiliating failure for the nation's security forces. By going to the Americans, however, Chen may have actually given the government an opportunity. If the Americans agree to take Chen in, that removes him as a potential distraction within China and serves a gracious concession on behalf of the party ahead of the upcoming summit. It isn't the ideal situation, but given the disaster that Chen's escape could have become, it's a chance turn a failure into a positive. Plus, the Americans get to say they took a stand for human rights, while simultaneously doing the Chinese a "favor." In the end it might be Chen who, while happy to be free, gets pushed to the sidelines in favor of diplomacy.