Yesterday it was exceedingly difficult to parse what occurred between U.S. diplomats and Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng during the days of negotiations behind the door of the U.S. Embassy. From the perspective of U.S. diplomats they were negotiating a breakthrough agreement that would have allowed Chen to remain in China unmolested as part of a deal guaranteed by high U.S. officials. But something went awry.
Did Chen not understand the limits of the United States to protect him in China? Or did the United States not appreciate the pressure being exerted on Chen and his family?
As we learned more, it seems most likely that Chen thought better of the whole thing when he entered that hospital and realized the U.S. government’s benevolent arm would not be there to shelter him from harm.
In a riveting interview with CNN, Chen shed some light on what happened:
Q: U.S. officials said you looked optimistic when you walked out of the embassy, what happened?
A: At the time I didn't have a lot of information. I wasn't allowed to call my friends from inside the embassy. I couldn't keep up with news so I didn't know a lot of things that were happening.
Q: What prompted your change of heart?
A: The embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised to have people stay with me in the hospital. But this afternoon as soon as I checked into the hospital room, I noticed they were all gone.
Q: Has the U.S. disappointed you?
A: I'm very disappointed at the U.S. government.
A: I don't think (U.S. officials) protected human rights in this case.
Meanwhile, lawyer Jerome Cohen, who had been assisting Chen, tried to explain how events unfolded:
The reports that Chen now feels coerced took many U.S. officials by surprise. Cohen said that while Chen never told him that anyone threatened his wife, Cohen heard from a friend of Chen’s wife on Wednesday morning that local authorities in Shandong had threatened to beat her to death if her husband left the country. Chen told the AP he heard this threat from U.S. officials, but U.S. officials say they had no knowledge of that threat and did not relay it to Chen. “What could’ve happened when he got to the hospital and met his family his wife told him what had happened and that might have made him regret the decision,” Cohen said. “He may be very susceptible. Here’s a man who’s had a very skewed perspective, living under a lot of abuse for many years.”
From everything we know it appears that when Chen left the U.S. Embassy he thought he had assurances about relocating his family, going to law school and being protected from local authorities. But it is also true that the negotiations laid out the alternative for him if he left China: His family would remain in peril. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed: “U.S. interlocutors did make clear that if Chen elected to stay in the Embassy, Chinese officials had indicated to us that his family would be returned to Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for reunification.”
One China hand tells me, “The U.S. government did tell Chen his family would be sent back home [where Chen knew reprisals where likely] if he didn’t leave embassy or seek asylum in U.S. But they are hairsplitting about whether this was a ‘threat.’”
There is a Rashomon-like quality to the incident, in which multiple participants may have been viewing the same events and hearing the same information quite differently.
Now it’s potentially a giant mess, with U.S. officials frantically trying to fulfill their promises to Chen but with limited ability to shield him from the authorities.
On this one, the Obama administration will be hard-pressed to shift blame for the predicament on China (“How foolish could they have been to trust the despots?” their critics will retort) or Chen (blaming the fragile victim of a despotic regime isn’t wise). So they better get this right, and do so quickly.
If there is a lesson here, it is that the administration’s striving for a conflict-free election year is misguided. Conflict finds us. And those who oppose our interests and values likely don’t care about President Obama’s electoral calendar, or if they do, they are more likely than not to try to exploit it, banking that the reticent president will be especially conflict-averse before November.