“He believes that China is in a period of intensive changes now, and it’s not far away from the final fundamental change,” said Hu Jia, a Beijing activist who said he met with Chen on Wednesday. “He told me he didn’t want to ask for political asylum in the U.S. Instead, he wants to ‘stay in this land and continue to fight.’ ”
U.S. foreign policy experts said that would put the United States in an unenviable diplomatic position on the eve of annual meetings on strategic and economic matters. They noted that although American diplomats have repeatedly urged senior Chinese officials to end abusive treatment of Chen, the Obama administration would not want to be drawn into negotiating the terms of Chen’s living conditions in China, which Chinese officials would likely see as interference in their internal affairs.
At the same time, experts said, U.S. diplomats do not want to see Chen leave the embassy if he is going to be detained again, an outcome that would set off an uproar in the international human rights community. As it is, several of the people who say they helped Chen during his escape have been detained, activists said Saturday.
“This is a pivotal moment for U.S. human rights diplomacy,” Bob Fu, president of the Texas-based Christian human rights group ChinaAid, said in a statement. “Because of Chen’s wide popularity, the Obama Administration must stand firmly with him or risk losing credibility as a defender of freedom and the rule of law. If there is a reason why Chinese dissidents revere the U.S., it is for a moment like this.”
Frank Jannuzi, head of Amnesty International’s Washington office, said that the past mistreatment of Chen suggests that he should not be handed back without a Chinese government commitment to respect his rights. He added: “Whether he wants to leave the country should be a choice he makes, not one forced upon him by the U.S. government or Chinese government.”
“This is one of those issues where there literally are no good options,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and former senior director for Asia on the National Security Council. “There is just no good way to manage this. I don’t envy the people in State and the White House who have to figure out how to walk the line on this one.”
With Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner due in Beijing on Tuesday for talks, Lieberthal said that “the best that can happen here is we negotiate an early departure from China” for Chen.
An unusual test
Yet some China experts say that Chen poses an unusual test for the country’s central government. Unlike many other political dissidents, Chen has not been convicted of a crime other than obstructing traffic, and he already completed his lengthy sentence for that. Since then, he has been held by what he described in a video this week as a group of local police and thugs who have beaten him and his wife and prevented visitors from seeing him.
“There is a really, really outside chance that the central Chinese authorities would take this opportunity to ride in on a white horse and clean this up and say they were defending the rule of law. But it is unlikely,” Lieberthal said. “At the end of the day, he is going to have to leave China or leave the embassy and see what he faces.”
Chen’s escape and the possible involvement of the U.S. Embassy in sheltering him come at an already challenging time for China’s Communist rulers, who are grappling with the gravest political crisis here since the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989. The firing of and investigation into once-rising star Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing party secretary, and the arrest of Bo’s wife on suspicion of murder have exposed high-level corruption and leadership rifts just months ahead of what was supposed to be a carefully choreographed handover of power this fall.
The Chen case could push human rights issues to the forefront of this week’s talks, which are supposed to focus on issues such as trade, currency appreciation, Iran sanctions and North Korea.
Another contentious issue at the talks could be a letter the White House legislative affairs director sent Friday to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), assuring him that the administration would give “serious consideration” to Cornyn’s proposal to sell new F-16C/D fighter planes to Taiwan. Cornyn, whose state includes plants belonging to the fighter-jet manufacturer Lockheed Martin, had earlier lifted his hold on Mark Lippert’s appointment as assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, a post that has been vacant for more than a year.
So far, however, both the United States and China have maintained a cautious silence on the Chen affair. Asked about it Friday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said simply, “I have no information to give you.”
Meanwhile, further details emerged about Chen’s journey over the past week. Hu Jia said he and Chen met in the same room in Beijing where Chen recorded the video, broadcast on YouTube, in which he calls on Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to protect his family and investigate corruption in Linyi city, in Shandong province, where Chen’s home village of Dongshigu is located. Hu described wearing a raincoat for concealment when he went to meet Chen at a safe house and said that to avoid being tracked, he did not take a cellphone.
He said that after their meeting, which lasted more than an hour, Chen moved to a new secret location. “We discussed where was a safe place for him in Beijing,” Hu said. “But we couldn’t figure out any absolutely safe place in Beijing except the U.S. Embassy.”
Li Jinsong, Chen’s attorney in the 2006 case that sent him to prison for more than four years, said that while he was imprisoned, Chen had turned down offers from various foreign diplomats for political asylum.
“So, I prefer to believe that he entered the U.S. Embassy just for the sake of his personal security, rather than applying for political asylum,” Li said, adding: “But he still has great confidence in China’s top leaders,” particularly Wen.
Chinese security police, meanwhile, began rounding up many of the activists who helped Chen escape. Shortly after Hu spoke with The Washington Post and other media outlets Saturday, he called at about 5:30 p.m. to say he was in a police car being taken in for questioning.
“They said I violated regulations by talking too much to the media,” Hu said. Hu was released from prison in June after being convicted of “inciting subversion of state authority.” Since then, he said, his political rights — including the freedom to speak with journalists — have been restricted. Hu said he expected to be detained for eight hours — the maximum time police can legally hold a suspect for questioning, although that rule is routinely ignored.
Also detained was Guo Yushan, director of a privately funded think tank called the Transition Institute and an activist who helped victims of a 2008 scandal involving tainted milk products. Guo helped shuttle Chen around Beijing in his car to secret hideouts and was briefly involved in a car chase with police, Hu said. Guo had called Hu at about 10:30 p.m. Friday to say that he was walking outside and being tailed by security agents.
The Beijing activists were also concerned about the fate of their Nanjing-based colleague He Peirong, also known as Pearl, who had driven Chen to Beijing but was arrested after returning to Nanjing.
The activists said that He’s only role was to bring Chen to the capital and that they deliberately left her in the dark about the plan to get him into the hands of U.S. diplomats.
Chen’s brother and nephew were also detained, and there were growing fears for the safety of Chen’s wife, mother and daughter, left behind in the village. Chen said in his video that he wanted assurances that they would not be harmed any further.
Mufson reported from Washington. Researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.