Chen was already an internationally known human rights activist when he remarkably showed up at the U.S. embassy in Beijing late last month seeking refuge. A blind, self-taught lawyer from Shandong province, Chen had been held prisoner for 19 months for the crime of publicizing Chinese atrocities by those enforcing the “one child” policy. Chen had chosen a moonless night (his captors were not blind) to scale several high walls and stumble his way to a predetermined meeting place where Christian friends would help him make the harrowing 300-mile journey to Beijing. He told supporters that he fell 200 times that night — breaking a foot in the process.
At some point, it’s not clear exactly where or when, U.S. officials did help Chen get to the embassy — which is gratifying. What happened next was not.
Four days of negotiations with the Chinese government followed. The State Department was gearing up for the visit of Secretary Hillary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and other top officials. Chen’s presence in the embassy would cast a pall over the diplomatic niceties. So while U.S. officials held discussions with the Chinese about Chen’s future, it’s clear that they did so with the usual disregard for the nature of the regime they were confronting.
When, for example, the Chinese rounded up Chen’s friends and accomplices in Shandong, U.S. officials asked China to “investigate” these “extralegal” activities by local authorities, as if they were dealing with a government that enforces the rule of law rather than a criminal state that flouts the law.
Throughout the tense days of talks, Chen’s spirits sometimes flagged, understandably. There are reports that the Chinese threatened his family. He asked, the Washington Post reported, about other human rights heroes — Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. “‘Does she ever feel low? Did she ever question her choices?’”
State Department officials claim that Chen repeatedly expressed a desire to remain in China and continue his human rights work. U.S. officials supposedly worked out an agreement with the Chinese that Chen, his wife and children would be permitted to move to a small city near Beijing to continue his legal studies, free from persecution. Clinton issued a statement that Chen was leaving the embassy in accord with “his wishes and our values.”
The State Department released cheery pictures of Chen being wheeled into the hospital. Then the rosy facade crumbled. Chen was surrounded by plainclothes police, and the U.S. officials abandoned him. “No one from the U.S. embassy is here,” Chen told a British broadcaster. “I don’t understand. They promised to be here.”
As Melinda Liu of The Daily Beast reported, Chen felt pressured by the United States to take the deal. He spoke to Bob Fu of the China Aid Association from his hospital bed: “He was very heavy-hearted,” Fu said. “He was crying when we spoke. He said he was under enormous pressure to leave the embassy. Some people almost made him feel he was being a huge burden to the U.S. According to Fu, Chen was told that “he would have no chance of reunification with his wife and children if he didn’t (leave). The choice presented to him was walk out — or stay inside and lose his wife and kids.”
Chen told Liu, through tears, that it was his “fervent hope” that he and his family would be permitted to leave China on Clinton’s plane.
It is sad when the most charitable possible interpretation of a diplomatic episode is that the Obama administration was rolled. Even supposing the administration to have been acting in good faith, President Barack Obama set the table for this sucker punch from the Chinese long ago. In 2009, Clinton signaled the administration’s weakness by saying that human rights concerns would not be permitted to interfere with cooperation “on the global economic crisis (and) the global climate change crisis.” Prior to his 2009 visit to China, Obama declined to meet with the Dalai Lama to avoid offending his hosts. And while in China, he permitted the regime to stage-manage his appearances and effectively censor his remarks.
The Chinese appear to have taken Obama’s measure. They think they have nothing to fear from flagrantly reneging on a deal to offer humane treatment to a human rights hero — thus openly expressing their contempt for Obama and the United States. Obama has suffered a loss of face. Chen stands to lose everything.