The Cable

Chen confidant: No U.S.-China ‘agreement’ on blind activist’s fate

There is no firm Chinese government agreement to allow blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng leave China to study in the United States, only two statements by the two governments and hopes that everything will work out fine, according to Chen’s legal mentor and confidant Jerome Cohen. In a long interview Friday with The Cable, Cohen ...

There is no firm Chinese government agreement to allow blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng leave China to study in the United States, only two statements by the two governments and hopes that everything will work out fine, according to Chen’s legal mentor and confidant Jerome Cohen.

In a long interview Friday with The Cable, Cohen expressed optimism that the latest twist in the Chen saga, whereby the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement suggesting that Chen can leave China but doesn’t promise anything, will lead to a salvation for Chen and his family.

"If he wishes to study overseas, as a Chinese citizen, he can, like any other Chinese citizens, process relevant procedures with relevant departments through normal channels in accordance to the law," Xinhua quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin as saying Friday.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her own remarks, praised the statement.

"We are also encouraged by the official statement issued today by the Chinese government confirming that he can apply to travel abroad for this purpose. Over the course of the day, progress has been made to help him have the future that he wants, and we will be staying in touch with him as this process moves forward," she said.

"Now things look brighter," Cohen told The Cable in a Friday afternoon interview, compared with Chen’s situation earlier in the week. "When I saw that this morning, I thought this was great news and it seems to be a way out."

There may be private understandings between the two governments. But nothing is assured, Cohen said, and the Chinese government’s statement was not the same as a promise, much less a bilateral agreement to do anything for Chen.

"The first question I asked is: What form will this take? Will this be in writing by the Chinese? At what level? The form that was contemplated was not that conventional. It was going to more like the Shanghai communiqué. One side says something and the other side doesn’t say anything," Cohen said.

But Cohen was nonetheless upbeat, explaining that in the U.S.-China relationship, having the two sides make two unilateral statements and then act as if there were an agreement is a time-honored tradition.

"This is the real world and the way nations deal with each other," Cohen said.

Cohen, a law professor at New York University, said that NYU would provide an invitation for Chen to be a visiting scholar but that reports of a "fellowship" are incorrect, leaving open the question of who will pay for Chen and his family to live and study in the United States — if, that is, he is actually allowed to go.

"I run a budget; I know about slender academic resources. I don’t have the money to support him and his family at the moment and I can’t commit to that at this point. Hopefully if push comes to shove I could raise it," Cohen said. "I can’t assume he will necessarily come to NYU. It’s very likely, but many law schools would likely welcome him as a guest."

Chen consulted with Cohen directly and often during his six-day stay in the embassy before agreeing to the terms of the first U.S.-brokered understanding with the Chinese government, under which Chen and his immediate family would be allowed to live freely in China and Chen would be able to study at a Chinese university.

Cohen was always skeptical of that deal and had recommended to Chen that he should reject the deal and elect to stay inside the U.S. embassy indefinitely, he disclosed.

"Neither option was attractive. Though he wanted to stay in China, he was very fearful to make the choice to accept the arrangement that the U.S. and China had agreed upon," said Cohen. "I said to Chen ‘Look, you are in no position to take this offer. Just tell them you will stay in the embassy and take your chances.’"

On the morning of May 2, Chen had nonetheless decided to take the deal because he had been informed that the Chinese government, through the Americans, had made it clear if he stayed in the embassy he would not be reunited with his wife and children.

"Tough pool, there," Cohen said, referring to the Chinese gamesmanship. Cohen also said Chen wanted to continue his work in China if at all possible. "Only 40 years old, did he want to exile himself from the country so that he would be ineffectual both in America and in China?"

Cohen told Chen May 2 that the strength of the Chinese assurances rested on the engagement of senior U.S. officials, namely President Barack Obama and Clinton. If they spoke out about the deal, he believed, the Chinese government would have to take it seriously.

"Chen said he would go for the deal if Obama would say something about it," Cohen said.

Clinton’s statement supporting the deal fulfilled that request, as far as Cohen was concerned, though Obama has yet to make a statement.

Cohen also said he was cognizant of the fact that the issue was fast becoming a political football in the United States and that Obama was under pressure to help out Chen.

"I knew Obama would sooner or later have to say something. How was he going to fight a campaign and respond to attacks by Romney? By sitting in silence?"

Chen also took a call from his wife before leaving the embassy, Cohen said, wherein his wife expressed her support for the idea of staying in China but did not mention the harassment and abuse she had been subjected to since Chen’s escape.

Based on all of those factors, Chen decided to take the deal.

"Everything’s fine, he gets in the car, everything’s lovey-dovey. He gets a call from Hillary. He’s exhilarated," Cohen said. "Then he gets to the hospital and over the next few hours the environment changes drastically. That’s when things took a turn for the worse."

Not only was Chen disoriented and hungry when he first arrived at the hospital, he began receiving phone calls from activist friends who told him he had make a mistake in taking the deal and that he was a fool to think the Chinese government would hold up its end of the bargain.

The Americans should have kept somebody there, Cohen said, noting that the place was infested with secret police, including some of those that escorted Chen’s wife and children from their locality.

"His human rights friends start calling him and saying ‘Are you crazy, get out of here, they will never fulfill the terms of this crazy deal,’" Cohen said.

Fellow activist Hu Jia’s wife called and said "This is terrible, don’t accept this," according to Cohen. It was she whose tweets first alerted the international media to Chen’s change of heart.

At that moment, Chen started getting calls from the AP and other media and Chen and his wife decided they wanted to leave China after all. Unfortunately, some of the statements Chen made to the media made it seem as though he was criticizing the embassy and that he was coerced to leave the embassy, which wasn’t Chen’s intention, according to Cohen.

By the next day, Chen had been reached by more moderate activists, who informed Chen how the impression abroad was that Chen was criticizing the embassy. Chen then sought to clarify his position, including with a dramatic call into a congressional hearing, that he was not seeking "asylum" — only a "rest" in the United States.

The following day, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued its statement, notably free of any of its previous condemnations of the United States.

In a Friday background briefing in Beijing, several reporters pressed two senior Obama administration officials on the lack of concrete, much less written, assurances by the Chinese government that Chen would be allowed to leave China.

"We are encouraged by the overall process, and we believe that steps will play out expeditiously," one official said, declining several times to define what timeline "expeditiously" means.

The officials said the United States would quickly approve a student visa application for Chen if one materialized. But the U.S. officials did not give any sense that the Chinese had committed to approving Chen’s application to leave the country. They did say they agreed with the Chinese that the Chinese government had held up its side of the original deal.

"Let me just say on that we actually believe that the Chinese government was following through with the arrangements and the understandings that were undertaken.  But what matters is what Mr. Chen felt and believed," another official said.

Also left unanswered is the fate of Chen’s extended family and those who supported his escape. The officials said they were aware of it and that they were optimistic it would all be resolved constructively.

"We’ve had detailed conversations with Chinese interlocutors about concerns of his family, his friends, his colleagues back in Shandong, and others who have been involved in his pilgrimage to Beijing over the course of last week," one official said. "We believe that this process will proceed accordingly, and we have high confidence in its course."

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