"While campaigning last week Romney said the administration had 'failed' to protect the blind Chinese dissident by factoring political considerations into the negotiations that ultimately led him to leave the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
. . . "
- Associated Press, May 7, 2012, Page A4, The Maui News
Candidate Mitt Romney's rant over the handling of Chen Guangcheng's appeal for U.S. assistance is about what can be expected of campaign rhetoric. The last time Romney expounded on U.S.-China relations in a Wall Street Journal essay, Chinese editor Hu Xijin described it as empty words appealing to the uninformed in America.
"Romney's tough words toward China sound very empty, as if he's just communicating to the electorate his determination to be faithful to America's national interests. Attacking China on human rights and its political system and describing China as an 'opponent' in military and economic areas makes the loyalty he has pledged to the United States seem more real," said Hu, editor of Global Times. "Barack Obama, as president, cannot directly attack China; Romney, as a candidate, will attack us every chance he gets - if merely to make the point that Obama is constrained and weak" ("Hollow Threats," Foreign Policy, March 21, 2012; www.foreignpolicy.com).
Presumably, even the political Romney understands that for China, Chen Guangcheng is an embarrassment that can be resolved diplomatically if Chen would accept exile with his wife and children. Neither China's national government nor the U.S. government can assure their safety if Chen were to return to Dongshigu village, which is what Chen reportedly preferred.
Most Americans don't understand the difficulty of the issue for China's national government. But most Americans perceive China's national government as a monolithic, all-powerful autocracy.
It is not.
The national government and ruling Chinese Communist Party are splintered by competing ideological factions, divided even further by post-Tinanmen Square developments that strengthened provincial leaders. With control of the Army and media, the national government maintains an appearance of central authority and political solidarity while the leadership continuously compromises with dissidents.
Analyst Christopher Johnson describes President Hu Jintao as unwilling to take risks "boxed in by more conservative forces. . . . Hu's failure, despite nearly a decade at the top, to control the key levers of power has only served to amplify these voices" ("China's cracked consensus," Foreign Affairs, April 18, 2012).
Writer James Fallows notes that the national government seeks to solidify its international standing, while "much of the country's daily reality is determined by mayors and governors and police" ("Their own worst enemy," Atlantic, November 2009).
That was the situation with Chen, held under house arrest by Shandong provincial police for pursuing legal actions against local authorities over forced sterilizations. Under China's laws, the national government would support Chen. Politically, it avoids stepping into dung heaps of provincial affairs.
"From Beijing's side, the timing of Chen's escape could hardly be worse," World Affairs Asia correspondent E. Sinclair says. "The big news out of China in 2012 was supposed to be this fall's meticulously planned, once-in-a-decade leadership transition. Instead, the Bo Xilai scandal has now become the biggest news out of China in years. Having ousted the powerful politician as a lone corrupt official, China's leadership has managed to keep this scandal below the level of a full-fledged international incident" ("Standoff in Beijing," World Affairs, May 1, 2012; www.worldaffairsjournal.org).
That incident also involved a high-profile Chinese official, Chongqing Police Chief Wang Lijun, entering the U.S. Embassy seeking protection from a provincial leader - Bo Xilai. Unlike Chen, Wang forced the national government to act against a provincial leader with high political standing, exposing a crack of corruption in the facade of government omniscience.
Allowing Chen to return home safely would widen the crack. It's not what presumptive President-to-be Xi Jinping needs or wants to deal with.
Candidate Romney knows this. But he still can pander to those who don't know any better.
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.