x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

China's blind activist will test 'peaceful rise'

China's neighbours will be watching the case of Chen Guangcheng for signs that China can be responsible big power

The case of the blind Chinese activist, Chen Guangcheng, has overshadowed the visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to China. America's ties to China are among its most important, if most prickly. Yet an essential part of any good relationship is the ability to speak frankly, and on that score the United States has so far failed.

The faltering - and still murky - deal under which Mr Chen left the US embassy should have brought American views into the open. Instead, when Hillary Clinton spoke in Beijing yesterday, she explicitly avoided reference to the case, making instead coded reference to a nation's responsibility "to answer to citizens' aspirations for dignity".

Such vagueness in such a case is not just an abdication of US values; it is an abdication of the America's self-proclaimed leadership in the world. Mr Chen was imprisoned for publicising the issue of forced abortions and sterilisations. If the US cannot stand up to China today on clear-cut issues like these, Washington's allies might fear it will be less likely to stand up for them tomorrow, when China is stronger.

But the Chen case isn't only about the US pushing China to do better by the world. It is also about the Chinese pushing themselves. China has for a long time followed the policy of non-interference in other country's affairs, in return for non-interference in its own domestic affairs. Indeed, the Chinese called Mr Chen's stay in the US embassy an act of interference and demanded an apology.

Non-interference may become harder to sustain as China's power and ability to project force and protect its interests abroad grows.

It is not merely the US that is watching the Chen saga. Citizens of China and other Asian countries will be wondering what rising Chinese power means for them. China is changing, but how it changes, and with whose interests in mind - its people or the party leadership - will be the true test of Beijing's emergence.

As the country's influence grows, it is its own citizens and neighbours who will feel it first. What precedent does it set if China treats its own citizens with contempt, or negotiates a deal with US diplomats only to renege once Mr Chen is back on Chinese soil?

Mr Chen went to the US embassy in Beijing looking for protection. On that score, the US singularly failed him. Yet had Mr Chen's own government afforded him protection under the law, he would never have needed to turn to the Americans in the first place.