Instead, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and other U.S. diplomats negotiated Chen’s fate with Cui Tiankai, a vice minister at the Foreign Ministry, one of the weakest departments in the Chinese government and one that has been repeatedly big-footed and, on occasion, humiliated by China’s powerful and lavishly funded security apparatus.
China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, sits on neither the Politburo nor its nine-member Standing Committee, the supreme decision-making body. The party makes all key decisions, dictating policy through a cluster of secrecy-shrouded committees and “working groups” that stand above government departments nominally responsible for setting policy. Foreign officials have little direct contact with Communist Party structures and conduct business through weak Chinese government agencies.
Jeffrey A. Bader, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as director for East Asian affairs on President Obama’s National Security Council until April last year, said the United States has no choice but to work with China’s Foreign Ministry on questions relating to dissidents.
“The ministry is the designated channel of interaction with the U.S. government on these kinds of issues,” he said. “They were in 1989 when we dealt with [dissident astrophysicist] Fang Lizhi and also every dissident since. But they don’t act as a free agent. They go back and coordinate in whatever fashion they do.”
The Foreign Ministry, Bader noted, negotiated and delivered a deal that allowed Fang to leave China after more than a year holed up in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. “The question is always whether the Foreign Ministry can deliver,” Bader said. “They cannot deliver without a coordinated position.”
Chen, who is in a hospital in Beijing, and other dissidents fall within the orbit of China’s Public Security Bureau and Ministry of State Security, which are supervised by the Communist Party’s Political and Legislative Affairs Committee. The head of that committee, Zhou Yongkang, sits on the Politburo Standing Committee.
When security agents roughed up foreign journalists early last year in central Beijing after anonymous calls on the Internet for a “jasmine revolution,” Yang, the foreign minister, categorically denied any such incidents, despite video footage and other evidence to the contrary.