“I probably was in 30 or 40 hours of conversation with him,” Campbell told CNN in an interview broadcast from China. “Every single discussion was about the possibility of how to go back and live a more normal life in China and what we could do to help in that effort. Never once did he talk about asylum or coming to the United States.”
As the hours passed, Chen would ask about famous dissidents from recent history, including former South African president Nelson Mandela. Chen seemed particularly curious about the experiences of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese pro-democracy activist who spent years under house arrest, Campbell said.
“He asked me many questions about her,” he recalled. “He asked me, ‘Does she ever feel low? Did she ever question her choices?’ ”
Worried about family
By Tuesday, all sides appeared to have settled on an unusual deal that would allow Chen to relocate to a city near Beijing, where he could attend law school under Chinese guarantees of protection. Jerome A. Cohen, an American lawyer long acquainted with Chen, said that when the two spoke by phone, the activist was nervous but eager to move forward.
Chen “was open to this idea of going out and studying law and trying to make a career again outside Shandong province,” said Cohen, a law professor at New York University and an expert on Chinese law. But he acknowledged that such a move would be “very, very dangerous,” given the chances of being detained again.
“We went back and forth,” Cohen said. “He was worried about his family.”
By Wednesday, U.S. officials began to put the plan into place. Campbell, in a statement, said Chen freely decided to leave the embassy after being assured that his wife and children were safe and waiting at a Beijing hospital.
“After twice being asked by [U.S. Ambassador to China Gary] Locke if he was ready to go, he said, ‘Zou’ — let’s go,” Campbell said. “We were all there as witnesses to his decision, and he hugged and thanked us all.
Locke phoned The Washington Post’s Beijing bureau at 3:20 p.m. local time to say he was in a van with Chen, stuck in traffic but en route to the hospital. The ambassador then handed the phone to Chen, who introduced himself: “This is Chen Guangcheng.” But the call ended soon after.
Embassy officials said they scrambled to see if one of their cellphones could be used to allow Chen to speak to his attorney and Clinton. His words to the chief U.S. diplomat — “I want to kiss you” — were “quite touching at the time and quite emotional,” the senior State Department official said.
U.S. diplomats did not accompany Chen after he arrived at the hospital, where the first signs of trouble surfaced. Around 8:30 p.m., Zeng Jihyan, the wife of Chinese activist Hu Jia, began tweeting that Chen was surrounded by plainclothes officials and fearful that the deal was unraveling. Videotape purportedly made at the Beijing hospital showed Chen in a wheelchair being followed by men recording his movements.
“At dusk when I left the hospital his entire family was waiting in the outpatient ward # 9,” Zheng tweeted. “The kids couldn’t go out and the son was crying really hard.”
Bob Fu, director of ChinaAid, a Christian activist group based in Texas, said he had received reports that Chen had been directly threatened in the hospital as soon as he was alone and that his whereabouts were not clear. Fu said Chen was warned that unless he accepted the proposed deal, he would “never see his wife and two children again.”
Hours after announcing the deal for Chen’s freedom, U.S. officials found themselves defending their actions.
“At no time did any U.S. official speak to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children,” said Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, traveling with Clinton in Beijing. “Nor did Chinese officials make any such threats to us.”
Other Chinese activists and Chen’s attorney now contend that Chen began having second thoughts at the hospital and wants to seek asylum in the United States. But the accounts could not be independently verified.
Chen could not be reached again.
“The situation seems to be evolving in a confused way,” said Cohen, the law professor, faulting U.S. officials. “The first mistake was they couldn’t leave or didn’t leave anybody in the hospital with him. Maybe he gets a report from his wife about threats, and his fears overcome him. This gets us off to a bad start on what was a daring deal.”