From the minute Clinton boarded her plane to Beijing last week, it was clear that the plight of blind activist Chen Guangcheng would make her trip an unusual one.
Six hours after she touched down in Beijing, embassy and State officials escorted Chen from the embassy to nearby Chaoyang hospital. Sleep-deprived state officials, clearly moved by Chen’s story, gushed about spending hours holding his hand and talking about his dreams to stay in China as a student and human rights advocate. They said Chen was so happy he wanted to kiss Clinton.
“The United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr. Chen and his family in the days, weeks and years ahead,” Clinton said in a statement right before joining a dinner with her Chinese hosts marking the eve of high-level talks on economic and security issues.
But by midnight, the State Department was blindsided by reports that Chen had swung from elation to despair. After talking with friends in the human rights community and with his wife, he had changed his mind about staying in China and now wanted to leave for the United States. At 12:38 a.m. came a new comment from the State Department: “At no point during his time in the embassy did Chen ever request political asylum in the U.S.”
The talks with the Chinese were supposed to begin in the morning. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, together with their staffs, were also in town. And the Chen crisis had taken a bizarre turn.
On Thursday morning, Clinton’s motorcade reached Diaoyutai, a historic, picturesque compound picked to be the site of the economic and security talks. Located in the western suburbs of Beijing, Diaoyutai was once a vacation spot for emperors. In the 1960s Communist leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai held meetings there. It’s where President Richard M. Nixon stayed when he came to China for his groundbreaking 1972 meeting with Mao.
No one at the meeting spoke Chen’s name. But there were tense, passing references during the opening remarks.
“I wish to point out in particular that a fundamental way to manage state to state relations is…to respect each other’s sovereignty …and choice of social system,” said State Councilor Dai Bingguo, with Clinton and Geithner seated on the stage. “This is particularly important to the relationship between major countries…No one should expect the Chinese to leave their own path.”