Chen Guangcheng breaks silence with phone call to The Washington Post

The call came in at 3:19 p.m., from a cellphone in Beijing.

“This is Gary, Gary Locke,” the ambassador said.

I wasn’t expecting the call, and I fumbled around to see if I had a notebook and pen anywhere near at hand. 

For days, reporters trying to get any information out of the U.S. Embassy on the status of dissident Chen Guangcheng had been met only with a wall of silence. Maybe, I thought, the U.S. ambassador was finally willing to share some tidbits on the whereabouts of the man who was currently China’s most famous activist, the blind lawyer jailed and then confined to his house for years because of his outspoken advocacy on behalf of women forced to have abortions in support of China’s one-child policies.

What I was not prepared for was when Locke said, “I’m here with Chen Guangcheng.  Do you speak Chinese?  Hold on.” 

And then passed the phone over.

“Hello, this is Chen Guangcheng,” came a matter-of-fact, almost cheerful voice.

I introduced myself in halting Chinese, using my Chinese name and the Chinese name for The Washington Post. I asked how Chen was, and where. I asked him to speak slowly, to make sure I could understand.

“Washington Post?” Chen repeated, his voice sounding generally happy.  Chen said he was fine and was in the car headed to the hospital, Chaoyang Hospital.  He repeated the name slowly, three times. 

And that was it. Chen handed the phone back to the ambassador, who said they were stuck in traffic, but promised a full briefing later.

Following the old “two source” rule for journalists, I definitely had my story. Chen was indeed under U.S. diplomatic protection, as we and other news outlets had been reporting. He was now leaving the embassy on his way to the hospital. In a vehicle with the American ambassador.  The first word would go out soon after that, in a blast to our overnight editors, and via my Twitter account.

I learned later that I was just one in a succession of calls U.S. diplomats made from the van at Chen’s request — they also spoke to Chen’s lawyer and to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, recently arrived in Beijing for an important two-day summit

An embassy official called later to explain that it was Chen, not Locke, who specifically wanted to contact The Washington Post.  Chen was aware of the international media coverage of his case, particularly a Post story from 2005, from my then-colleague Phil Pan, on Chen’s work highlighting the problem of forced abortions and sterilizations in Linyi City, Shandong province.

The phone that was used in the van belonged to an embassy staff member — one of the only people aboard who had thought to bring a mobile device. Locke apparently just took the phone to make sure it was me who answered, before passing it along to Chen. The embassy was subsequently deluged with calls from reporters, who accused the staff of playing favorites with the press.

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