Suddenly, the Chinese Foreign Ministry broke its silence on the case, issuing a statement in which it lambasted U.S. interference and demanded an apology.
To many outside the government, it appeared as if the Chinese were annulling the deal. But many U.S. officials who were there say that the Chinese appeared willing to follow through on the deal and would have, if Chen hadn’t changed his mind.
“To this moment there is no aspect of those understandings that they didn’t fulfill,” said one senior U.S. official, noting that the Chinese had kept their promise to open an investigation into the abuse Chen suffered and allowed him to communicate freely.
The closing pitch
By the morning of Thursday, May 3, in Beijing, it was clear there was a problem: Chen wanted to leave China.
U.S. officials realized they had underestimated the animosity of Chen’s friends and fellow dissidents toward his decision to stay, and overnight as he sat alone with his family, they had clearly persuaded him to reconsider.
By then, the conference was in full swing, and any negotiations would have to take place in the short breaks between sessions.
For the first time, U.S. officials floated the idea of Chen going to the United States. With the situation rapidly falling apart, they suggested it was the quickest path to resolution. At an afternoon meeting, Cui appeared angry as he listened to the proposal but left to convey the message to his leaders.
That night, after a full day at the conference, Clinton gave her tired and dispirited negotiating team a pep talk. They weighed the options, including allowing for a cooling-off period. But ultimately, Clinton called for a full-court press to reach an immediate solution.
Hours later, Campbell contacted Cui to tell him they needed another meeting in the morning.
Cui responded heatedly, his voice so loud it could be heard by others in the room with Campbell: “We did this once already!”
By morning, Clinton decided to raise the stakes and meet directly with Dai Bingguo, China’s senior foreign policy official. A sit-down was scheduled for 9 a.m.
Clinton opened with praise for both sides’ negotiators and their original agreement. Then she carefully framed the new proposal in terms of the first deal.
The plan all along had been for Chen to be able to study in the United States after his two years in Tianjin, she pointed out. All the United States was asking for was to move up that timetable.
She described the moment in lofty terms — as an inflection point in history that could have enormous bearing on future relations between the two countries.