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.”
Scheduled events proceeded, as if no one had heard of Chen. Small groups of Chinese and American officials met on trade, national security and science. Clinton toured an exhibit displaying hundreds of different cookstoves manufactured by the Chinese. A ceremony a half hour later celebrated green tech partnerships between cities like Portland, Oregon and Kunming, in southwest China.
Just before 6 p.m., U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke darted out of a dialogue meeting to explain the Americans’ version of Chen’s situation as it became clearer that the United States would have to return to negotiating with the Chinese over the activist’s fate.
But time was running out. Clinton was due to leave Beijing for Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh mid-day Saturday.
The public silence on Chen continued. On Friday, Clinton attended more events, smiling as children sang and eating lunch at the National Museum. The closing remarks were due in the afternoon, followed by a live televised press conference at the JW Marriott Hotel.
As the motorcade raced from Diaoyutai to the hotel, it whizzed by more than a century of modern Chinese history – Tiananmen Square, the site of the 1989 massacre on the right, and the Forbidden City, home to generations of emperors until 1911. Closer to the hotel was ample evidence of Deng Xiaoping’s efforts to open the country’s economy: gleaming luxury stores in a mall that looks like a playground for the elite called Xin Guang Tian Di, or “new bright world.”
At the press conference, Clinton said that “progress” had been made on Chen, but didn’t clarify. Later, in a statement, the United States revealed the deal it had made with the Chinese government. Chen Guangcheng would apply for a passport through the Chinese, who would process it quickly, and the United States would help him and his family get visas so he could become a fellow at an American University.
Within 24 hours, Clinton landed in Dhaka, a place nothing like Xin Guang Tian Di in Beijing. Nearly half the population of Bangladesh lives on less than a dollar a day.
Standing at a lectern next to Bangladesh’s minister of foreign affairs that evening, a relieved-looking Clinton referred to her last visit to the country 17 years earlier. “We want to see Bangladesh succeed,” she said, her voice rising. “You know, this is personal for me.”
By the time she reached India on Saturday, Clinton was basking in the local attention. At a town hall in Kolkata on Sunday, the moderator, a TV personality in India named Barkha Dutt, kept pressing her to run for president in 2016. Students clapped and cheered. “Oh dear, she’s gonna get me in so much trouble,” Clinton said, laughing.
Beijing—and Chen—were far, far away.