Wow. Interesting turn of events. So, Chen is out of the US embassy and, after a quick medical check at a local hospital, has been released. He plans to stay in China. The US government statement on the matter tells us:
"Mr. Chen decided to depart the embassy today and travel to a hospital in Beijing. He did so on the basis of a number of understandings. China acknowledged that Mr. Chen will be treated humanely while he remains in China… He has been reunited with his family - his wife and two children - at the hospital, and they remain together with him as a family. He had not seen his son in a few years, and his wife had not seen him (the son) either, so this was a family reunification after a long and difficult separation.
"When he leaves the hospital, the Chinese authorities have stated that Mr. Chen and his family will be relocated to a safe environment so that he may attend a university to pursue a course of study. I think many of you know that he is a self-taught lawyer, that he has long sought the opportunity to study at university... We understand that there are no remaining legal issues directed at Mr. Chen, and that he will be treated like any other student in China."
This is fairly remarkable. In the past few days knowledgeable analysts of Chinese politics suggested that the Chinese government would not provide any guarantees or assurances on Chen and his treatment. To do so would risk being perceived as giving in to a dissident and, worse, compromising with the US on a matter of domestic politics, something the Party is loath to do. It is unclear how firm the Chinese commitment is to keep Chen safe. But, on the face of it, the mere suggestion that they recognize the need to state publicly that his safety requires their attention is a change from before, and maybe, depending how things play out, a change for the good.
Even more notable is this, from the US statement:
"Chinese officials have further stated that they will investigate reported extra-legal activities committed by local Shandong authorities against Mr. Chen and his family. The United States will take a continuing interest in the well-being of Mr. Chen and his family, including seeking period welfare visits and raising his case with the appropriate authorities. We will look to confirm at regular intervals that the commitments he has received are carried out. "
This is the key. The central problem in the CGC case has been the impunity of local officials. They have held Chen under house arrest and brutally mistreated him without proffering any legal decision or reason. They have flouted the rule of law. Indeed, Chen is a symbol of all that is wrong with the Chinese legal system. Up until now, Central authorities have simply looked the other way (it is highly, highly implausible that leaders in Beijing did not know that Chen was being held in the manner that he was).
If a serious investigation is launched by Beijing against the Linyi officials, it could signal that more reform-minded forces are steering the process. Wen Jiabao has called for some sort of political reform - though he has seemed powerless to pull it off - and an investigation of the CGC case would be a perfect launching pad for a reformist program, even if that meant only a modest improvement in the rule of law. Moreover, if reformists have the upper hand in this case, that could suggest they are in an advantageous position in terms of the leadership transition slated for this fall. In that regard, this could be a turning point, or, should more conservative political forces prevail, a repetition of the usual pattern of repression. Everything is of heightened political significance in Beijing these days because of the looming succession, which was roiled by the still unsettled Bo Xilai affair.
If there is no investigation, and Chen is hounded and harassed and rearrested after Hilliary Clinton leaves, then we will know that reformists at the Center have no power and the hard-line Legalist (who ironically politicize and weaken the rule of law) repressers will dominate the leadership transition.
A lot is riding on what happens in the next few months.
Ominously, the official Chinese statement makes no mention of the assurances noted in the US text. The incident is framed as US interference in domestic Chinese affairs and an apology is demanded. Sardonically, it states: "China demands that the U.S. apologise over this, thoroughly investigate this incident, punish those who are responsible, and give assurances that such incidents will not recur." The irony here is the call for an investigation. What we have is a situation in which local Linyi officials appear to be acting illegally, brutually mistreating a Chinese citizen, and drawing upon the authority granted them by the higher levels of the Party (the Chinese political system is unitary, not federal, and local officials are clearly subordinate to the Center), and the Center seems to be avoiding any serious investigation of the case. But they want the US to investigate its role. I guess they want parity in investigations...
In a sense, the most important political phase of the Chen Guangcheng saga has just begun. He has become more than a symbol of Chinese law and politics; he is now the crux of reform or repression.
And there may be reason for pessimism. There are now tweets and reports from Zeng Jinyan - a Chinese human rights activist and wife of Hu Jia - that Chen was forced to leave the embassy with threats from Chinese authorities that if he did not leave his wife and daughter would be sent back to Shandong immediately. This could mean that the Chinese government is playing a short-term game: get Chen out of the embassy and deal with him a bit later, after media attention has died down.
Much has yet to be learned....