The Obama administration wants greater ccooperation from China on trade, currency rates, Iran oil sanctions and North Korean nuclear weapons, but with the Chen case, the nettlesome issue of human rights threatens to overtake that agenda.
Chen’s case also quickly entered the presidential campaign. “I really love America,” Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, said at a Virginia fundraiser Wednesday night. “I love what it represents, and I love that a Chinese dissident who fled the policies in his country, I love where he went — to our embassy.”
Chen revived the human rights issue by escaping from de facto house arrest in his home village in Shandong province on April 22 and by seeking U.S. protection in the Chinese capital four days later. American officials said Wednesday that they accepted him at the embassy on humanitarian grounds.
Chen was already well known to U.S. officials. According to WikiLeaks, between April 2007 and July 24, 2009, Chen’s name was included in at least 37 State Department cables. His was one of three “key cases” mentioned during the May 2008 resumption of the U.S.-China human rights dialogue after a six-year hiatus.
So U.S. officials were elated that the Chinese government said that it would allow Chen and his family to move away from their village, and pledged to investigate why authorities there allowed armed thugs in plainclothes to confine the activist in his house and prevent others from seeing him.
But Teng Biao, Chen’s lawyer, said in an interview late Wednesday that he spoke with Chen several times during the evening. “He felt his safety is threatened. He feels pressure now,” Teng said. “In fact, from his language, I can tell that the decision to leave the embassy was not 100 percent his idea.”
“I spent most of the time trying to persuade him to go to the U.S.A.,” Teng said. “We discussed what to do next, staying in China or going to the States. After some discussion with friends, I feel his safety cannot be guaranteed if he stays in China.”
Some China experts said they saw the pledges from Beijing not only as a human rights achievement but as an indication that — as in the recent case of Chongqing party leader Bo Xilai or last year’s ouster of corrupt local leaders in a strife-torn southern town — the central government wants to assert its authority over renegade or corrupt provincial authorities.
In addition, the agreement appeared to take Chen off the bilateral agenda. American officials released a photograph showing a smiling Chen with U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke and insisted that the activist left the embassy of his own volition.
But friends of Chen criticized U.S. officials for leaving him unaccompanied at the hospital, where he was treated for a foot injury. Adding to the confusion, Chen told several reporters by phone from his hospital bed that he now wanted to move to the United States with his family.
Under intense international scrutiny, U.S. diplomats scrambled to provide their version of events.
“I was there,” Kurt Campbell, the State Department’s top diplomat for East Asia, said in a statement. “Chen made the decision to leave the Embassy after he knew his family was safe and at the hospital waiting for him, and after twice being asked by Ambassador Locke if he was ready to go. He said, ‘Zou’ — let’s go. We were all there as witnesses to his decision, and he hugged and thanked us all.”
But soon after Locke and State Department legal adviser Harold Koh dropped Chen off at the hospital, the diplomatic frictions grew.
A combative statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry heightened fears among Chen’s supporters that the deal could be unraveling. Fuming over the United States’ acknowledgment that it had sheltered Chen, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said, “The U.S. method was interference in Chinese domestic affairs, and this is totally unacceptable to China.”
According to the state-run news agency Xinhua, Liu added: “China demands that the United States apologize over this, thoroughly investigate this incident, punish those who are responsible and give assurances that such incidents will not happen again.”
Campbell said that the United States would not apologize but that Washington did not expect a similar incident to occur, a formulation U.S. officials hoped would be sufficient to mollify Chinese officials.
As the high-level diplomatic and trade talks began this morning, there was no public mention of Chen, but there were allusions to the case.
Opening the sessions, Councilor Dai Bingguo asserted China’s right to determine how best to run its society.
“I wish to point out in particular that a fundamental way to manage state-to-state relations is ... to respect each other’s sovereignty ... and choice of social system,” Dai said. “No one should expect the Chinese to leave their own path.”
Clinton broached the topic of human rights toward the end of her remarks after listing other issues on the agenda, including North Korea’s nuclear program.
“The United States raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms because we believe that all governments have to answer to their citizens’ aspirations for dignity and the rule of law,” she said, “and that no nation can or should deny those rights.”
Chen’s case had presented the United States with a thorny diplomatic dilemma. He wanted to remain in China to fight for people’s rights, friends said. But with security officials rounding up the activists who helped him escape and who sheltered him, U.S. diplomats risked seeing Chen arrested if he left the embassy without some formal guarantees for his safety.
U.S. officials said the Chinese agreed to investigate the “extralegal” activities of local authorities in Chen’s home town who have allowed armed men to effectively confine the activist to his farmhouse for 19 months, preventing celebrities, journalists and others from visiting him.
Senior U.S. officials said they became extremely close with Chen during the negotiations, often holding his hand as they spoke. One official described the talks with Chinese officials as “intense but collaborative.”
The officials said American diplomats “will take a continuing interest in the case of Mr. Chen and his family” and will check on him in “regular intervals” to confirm that the Chinese government’s commitments are carried out.
But activists’ fears over Chen’s fate mounted, and they expressed increasing alarm — fueled by a series of Twitter updates — that what seemed like a human rights victory was spiraling quickly into a worst-case scenario.
Chen was no longer under U.S. protection, they noted, and it was not clear whether he had left on his own free will or under coercion. While U.S. officials said they had been promised access to Chen in the hospital, Britain’s Channel 4 news quoted a conversation with him in which he seemed confused and upset that no American diplomats were around.
“Nobody from the (U.S.) embassy is here. I don’t understand why. They promised to be here,” Channel 4 quoted Chen as saying.
Bob Fu, president of the advocacy group ChinaAid, said he was concerned that “the U.S. government has abandoned Chen” and that the Chinese government is “using his family as a hostage.”
With two days of high-level U.S.-China talks to come this week, Chen’s case is expected to loom large.
“The question has always been the place of human rights on the American agenda with China — how high up and tactically how is it pursued,” said David Shambaugh, director of the China policy program at George Washington University. “It’s never been a question of whether it is on or off the agenda.”