As he left the protection of the U.S. Embassy in China early Wednesday, blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng startled his hosts with an unexpected request: He asked whether he could have a word with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose team apparently had just negotiated his safe reentry into Chinese society.
“I want to kiss you,” Chen, speaking in broken English, told Clinton after a phone connection was hastily made from the back of an embassy van, according to an account from senior State Department officials.
But just hours later, a friend of Chen’s tweeted a clarification of the dissident’s words. Chen, the friend said after speaking to him by phone, had tried to tell Clinton: “I want to see you” — suggesting not merely gratitude for the American intervention but also a desire to secure an even higher guarantor against possible mistreatment by Chinese authorities.
And so a remarkable drama, begun more than a week earlier when Chen escaped from house arrest in his provincial village and made his way toward the U.S. Embassy, culminated not in the diplomatic coup of an American-brokered deal but in confusion.
Chen left his American protectors behind soon after making his request for a hearing with Clinton and was admitted to a hospital for treatment of a foot injury incurred during his escape. Despite promises from the Chinese government that Chen and his family could live in peace, plainclothes Chinese agents reportedly surrounded Chen in his hospital room.
With Chen’s fate suddenly unclear, his attorney soon accused China of reneging on the deal that hours earlier had been hailed as a triumph.
“The Chinese government has made many promises on many things, but they never keep their promises,” said the lawyer, Teng Biao.
The incident began, State Department officials said, when Chen, a self-taught lawyer and an internationally known dissident who publicly criticized Chinese policies on abortion and forced sterilzations, turned up at the U.S. Embassy injured and pleading for help. Despite the risks to diplomatic relations, Chen — who hurt himself while climbing a wall during his escape in Shangdong province — was granted admission on what U.S. officials described as “humanitarian grounds.”
“We assisted Mr. Chen in entering our facilities and allowed him to remain on a temporary basis,” a senior State Department official told reporters.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive events, declined to elaborate on how Chen was able to enter the walled, closely watched U.S. compound. But he said the activist was given medical tests and “appropriate treatment.”
Chen made clear from the start that he wished neither to stay in the embassy nor to flee to the United States, the official said. Instead, Chen wanted U.S. help in guaranteeing the safety of family members who he believed were at risk of persecution because of his escape. He also asked that his family be relocated to a new home in China, far from the provincial village where he said his family was being imprisoned and mistreated by local authorities.
U.S. diplomats relayed his requests to Chinese officials in a series of meetings that were described as cordial but tense. Further complicating matters, Chen’s arrival came days before a high-level visit to China by Clinton and other top U.S. officials.
While unhappy about the circumstances, Chinese officials expressed sympathy for Chen’s predicament as the talks progressed, said Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who arrived in Beijing on Sunday. The U.S. negotiators who sat with Chen for hours at a time — often holding his hands as they talked — also were moved by his story, he said.
“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?’ ”
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.”