I arrived in Beijing late on the high speed train from Nanjing a few days ago. In Nanjing we were whisked to the South train station on a relatively new subway, walked into the massive new transportation hub (it brought back memories of the Three Gorges Dam), and arrived roughly a thousand miles away in just 3 and half hours*. It was everything that China appears to be in Thomas Friedman’s accounts, and even as skeptical as I can be at times about China’s progress, it was hard to contain my sense of awe. For a moment I forgot about the pollution that had limited my view the entire journey and the massive cost of the projects and enjoyed China’s glorious achievements (but just for a moment).
Then I stepped through some kind of portal that seems to exist somewhere between Beijing subway line 4 and line 2, from the rapidly modernizing to the rapidly deteriorating construction of prior decades. It was one of the most striking reminders of Beijing’s progress in the last decade that I experienced during my trip. Line 2’s drab station prepared me for stepping out into the rain and walking to the hotel I was staying at, which seems to have somehow escaped the bulldozers that have reclaimed so many of Beijing’s ugly 90’s era buildings.
The scene in the lobby seemed like something out of a bad Chinese comedy. A man wearing a suit and hotel slippers shuffled by, his slacks rolled up to his knees. Another man who had just been scolded for smoking, dropped the butt on the floor and smashed it under his foot. A drunk man, who also happened to be smoking just barely managed to catch the ledge of the front desk as he stumbled through the door. Nobody bothered to tell this man that there was no smoking in the lobby. The main attraction however was the couple in the throws of a heated argument with the hotel manager.
The man claimed that he had booked a room online and had already paid for it while the hotel manager calmly repeated that there was no record of his booking and that he had never heard of that website. The angry man was brandishing his wallet like a dagger as he pounded his fist on the counter. “When you get off work, I’m going to kill you!” he screamed. The manager seemed accustomed to such threats, and the growing audience snickered as the man’s rage built.
Suddenly, the man’s wife slapped the wallet out of his hand and scolded him for being so easily tricked online. To me it looked as if the man was close to suffering a mortal blow to his reputation. As in most situations in China when face is lost, instead of retreating the man doubled down on his threats against the manager in the hope that he may yet be victorious. I was worried that the man was very close to making good on what had previously seemed like hollow threats. As he worked himself up, the manager slipped back into his office. The man was quick to claim this as a victory and then assented to paying for a night in a discounted room.
My point today may not be immediately obvious, but I think these two experiences are key to this week’s political discussion over Chen Guangcheng’s future. One being that China is keen to be viewed as a “modern” nation – this means that the pretense of rule of law will be one of the main points of any negotiation and that it is highly unlikely that the Central Gov’t will acknowledge that Chen was being held illegally. Secondly, that if threatened with a loss of face on a global scale, China may begin to behave like the man in the lobby, drumming up empty threats and jabbing at the US with its wallet.
For these two reasons, I think that the current tone of the Obama administration is probably for the best. The US could come in trumpeting the value of human rights and leave empty handed, or they can arrive and quietly deal with Chen’s case in a way that saves face. Neither of these options are particularly satisfying, but it is unrealistic to hope for much more. Leaving with less would be a political disaster for Obama in an election year that has already begun to focus on US-China relations. Speculation of the deal being presented as Chen leaving for the US for medical treatment seems the most likely outcome, especially given that Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer left on similar terms in 2005.
*On the train I just happened to be seated next to a young woman from Linyi. I was going to ask her whether or not she knew of Chen Guangcheng’s imprisonment in that city, but backed out when she mentioned that her parents were gov’t officials. Now I really wish I had.