Out of the Embassy and Into the Fire

U.S. officials cut a dramatic deal for the freedom of blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, but the agreement appears to contain few hard assurances that China will keep its end of the bargain.


BEIJING—When Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. Embassy here Wednesday afternoon, en route to the uncertainty of a Chinese hospital armed only with the guarantees painstakingly negotiated for him by his American protectors, he got through to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a borrowed telephone.

"I want to kiss you," he told Clinton in broken English, according to an account provided by one of the senior administration officials who accompanied him in the van.

But Zeng Jinyan, the wife of well-known activist Hu Jia, contradicted that account on Twitter, saying Chen told her he had asked to "see" Clinton, not to kiss her.

Either way, not long after, the blind dissident, a legal activist whose cause had in the past been publicly championed by Clinton after his crusade to expose forced sterilizations infuriated local authorities and led to his extralegal house arrest, left the custody of the Americans to reunite with his wife and two children at a Beijing hospital.

The deal, Clinton said in a statement, "reflected his choices and our values." But Chen later told the Associated Press from his hospital room that he was told that Chinese officials had threatened to beat his wife to death if he had not left the embassy.

In a statement,  Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell reiterated the department’s version of events. "I was there," he said. "Chen made the decision to leave the Embassy after he knew his family was safe and at the hospital waiting for him, and after twice being asked by Ambassador Locke if he ready to go. He said, ‘zou,’ — let’s go. We were all there as witnesses to his decision, and he hugged and thanked us all."

It was an emotional, and highly unclear, ending to a diplomatic drama that has placed human rights abuses in China once again atop the American agenda, much to the dismay of a Chinese government playing host here to Clinton, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and some 200 American officials for an annual strategic and economic dialogue meant to showcase a very different kind of relationship between the two world powers.

As recounted by two senior U.S. officials who participated in the days of talks, it was an elaborate drama of the sort that rarely plays out publicly, a mix of Cold War-vintage dissident intrigue, superpower niceties, and human emotions running high after a week without sleep for all involved-and set against the backdrop of an urgent deadline in the form of the intricately choreographed U.S.-China dialogue set to begin here within hours.

This very first account, provided to the press corps traveling with Clinton not long after arriving in Beijing on a 20-hour journey here, confirms for the first time what had been suspected since Chen’s dramatic flight from his village became public last Friday: U.S. officials did in fact help Chen, injured during his escape, enter the U.S. Embassy here.

Chen, according to their account, had been injured in his foot when he jumped over the wall to make his escape-actually, said one of the American administration officials, he had to make his way over eight walls-and begin his long journey to Beijing. Once in American hands, an extraordinary process ensued as American and Chinese diplomats tried to figure out how to handle a situation that had last come up back in the chaotic days after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when a dissident academic, Fang Lizhi, ended up in the U.S. Embassy for more than a year while his fate was negotiated and before ending up in American exile.

Everyone seemed determined to avoid that outcome this time, from Chen, who repeatedly told the Americans he wanted to remain in his country, to the U.S. and Chinese officials who now have much more at stake in a relationship between the world’s two top economies than they did two decades ago, before China’s remarkable economic rise and ascent on the global stage.

When word of Chen’s arrival reached Washington, Clinton immediately dispatched top officials, including Campbell and State Department counsel Harold Koh, to lead the negotiations. According to the account provided here, it was an intense and deeply personal process of working with the fugitive once he arrived at the embassy on Thursday, April 26; Chen, who is blind, held Campbell by one hand and Koh by another at various points.

In the end, the deal they negotiated seemed to offer Chen promises, but no real guarantees. As outlined by the Americans, it included the following: a promise not only to reunite Chen with his wife and two children but also that he "will be treated humanely," that U.S officials would have access to him in the hospital; that he would ultimately be "relocated to a safe environment," and would have the opportunity to attend a university to continue his self-guided studies in law. There was no word on the other human rights activists who have apparently been rounded up in recent days after helping Chen’s escape; only the American officials urging the authorities "to take no retribution" against them.

"We think we have helped to secure for him a better future," said one of the U.S. officials involved.

Still, it’s a deal that’s sure to be second-guessed and parsed endlessly, and one that risks alienating both the Chinese, who, angered by the incident, put out a statement on the news agency Xinhua demanding an American apology (one was not forthcoming) and human rights advocates, who may fear that the guarantees to Chen are not sufficient.

For Clinton, too, it was an important moment, and she will have to balance on this trip her stature as a human rights icon — during Clinton’s phone call with Chen, the U.S. official said, they discussed Clinton’s longtime support for Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi — with the more measured tone on such issues she has taken while serving as Secretary of State. Clinton — whose most famous speech as first lady was a rousing address in Beijing labeling women’s rights as human rights — was widely criticized when she made her first trip here in 2009 as secretary of state for appearing to dismiss human rights as just another pro forma issue but since then she has spoken out repeatedly on such issues. She mentioned Chen’s case by name as recently as November.

Apparently, the officials said today, Chen had heard of Clinton’s appeal on his behalf, even locked away in his remote village.

Susan Glasser is a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy; former Moscow bureau chief of the Washington Post; and co-author, with Peter Baker, of Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola