A rushed handover of Chen Guangcheng could quickly turn into a liability for the Obama administration.
A deal negotiated by US and Chinese officials regarding the fate of human rights activist Chen Guangcheng appeared to be unraveling Wednesday night as friends of the dissident claim he was coerced into leaving the US embassy where he had sought refuge for six days after escaping from house arrest nearly two weeks ago. It appears that in the interest of removing a bone of contention between the two countries in advance of bi-lateral talks that start on Thursday, the US may have hastily negotiated an agreement that the Chinese might have no intention of honoring, thus putting the human rights activist's life -- and that of his family -- in danger.
The deal would have seen Chen released to a local hospital for treatment of his leg, injured in his daring escape from house arrest. The Chinese would have then allowed him to reunite with his family and move to a university town where he could continue his legal studies. The Chinese also promised that he would face no more legal issues and that the oppressive authorities in his hometown would be punished for their extra-legal detention of the activist.
From his hospital bed, Chen reached out to several news services, saying he had changed his mind and now wanted to leave China, a request he did not make while sheltered by the embassy because he was unaware that he and his family were in danger. He also claimed that an American official had told him that he had been advised by a Chinese government official that if he didn't leave the embassy, they would beat his wife to death. The State Department strongly denies that charge, saying no American official told Mr. Chen anything except that if he didn't leave the embassy, his wife would be sent home from Beijing.
The confusion surrounding the deal has the potential to upend the economic and security talks between the two countries that begin on Thursday. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are in Beijing for bi-lateral talks that will touch on security issues like Iran and North Korea as well as economic matters like China's currency policies and its huge trade surplus with the US.
Shortly after Chen's release, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a blistering statement, demanding that the US apologize for sheltering Chen and for interfering in the internal affairs of China. And American officials who were staying with Chen at the hospital were ordered to leave, replaced by a cordon of plainclothes policemen who limited access to the activist. It is unclear whether the Chinese will follow through and live up to their end of the bargain, which has caused Chen to change his mind about staying in China and is now pleading with US officials to secure his passage to America for himself and his family.
Chen, who fought government officials in his rural province for years over their forced abortion policy and other outrages, told the Associated Press that he fears for his family's safety. His lawyer, Teng Biao, told the Washington Post, "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," he added.
In an emailed statement to the New York Times, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland denied the claim that Chen was coerced into leaving the embassy:
At no time did any U.S. official speak to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children, nor did Chinese officials make any such threats to us. U.S. interlocutors did make clear that if Chen elected to stay in the embassy, Chinese officials had indicated to us that his family would be returned to Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for reunification.
Chen told Reuters that the reason he changed his mind about staying in China was because, once in the hospital, he was able to speak to his wife, who told him of his family being menaced by authorities. "When I was inside the American embassy, I didn't have my family, and so I didn't understand some things. After I was able to meet them, my ideas changed." He also made a personal appeal in a CNN interview to President Obama to help him escape China with his family because he feared for his life after learning that his wife had been bound and beaten following his escape:
She was tied to a chair by police for two days. Then they carried thick sticks to our house, threatening to beat her to death. Now they have moved into the house. They eat at our table and use our stuff. Our house is teeming with security -- on the roof and in the yard. They installed seven surveillance cameras inside the house and built electric fences around the yard.
The fact that the Chen incident threatened to overshadow the bi-lateral talks with China and that the US was desperate to make a deal in order to remove Chen as an irritant prior to the meetings gives credence to the dissident's charges of coercion -- despite the denials by US officials. But it is clear that Chen changed the parameters of the deal himself when he performed an about-face and indicated he wanted US help to leave the country. This was not part of the original bargain and his request has American diplomats scrambling to explain their actions, as well as control the political damage that has exploded back in America.
One outspoken critic of China's abysmal human rights policies, Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), criticized the Obama administration for not granting Chen asylum. "There are no safe places in China for dissidents," said Smith. "Going to the hospital is no different from going to the police station.”
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in a statement, "This event points to the broader issue of human rights in China. Any serious U.S. policy toward China must confront the facts of the Chinese government’s denial of political liberties, its one-child policy, and other violations of human rights."
Bob Fu, who helped Chen escape house arrest and who heads the ChinaAid Association that assists dissidents in China, said simply, “The U.S. government has abandoned Chen” and that the Chinese government is “using his family as a hostage.”
And Paul Gregory, writing in Forbes, says the US should feel ashamed. "We have sacrificed a fundamental moral issue for commercial and political gain. We should have welcomed Chen in the embassy as we did Fang Lizhi and demanded that Chen’s wife and son be delivered to the safety of the U.S. Embassy, after which negotiations on Chen could begin."
Indeed, it is not unprecedented for the US to shelter dissidents at our embassies in foreign countries. Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty, a leader of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, took refuge in the US embassy in Budapest when Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the rebellion. He stayed for 15 years. He was eventually permitted to leave Hungary in 1971.
The unseemly rush to deliver Mr. Chen back into the hands of his oppressors was a product of politics, not diplomacy. President Obama can't afford a foreign policy embarrassment in an election year and the Chinese were very angry that we allowed Chen sanctuary in the embassy. There's no telling what the Chinese would have done if Chen was still under American protection once the talks started between the two governments.
The statement by the official Chinese news agency hints at how angry Beijing is at what it considers US meddling in its internal affairs. Liu Weimin, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, in comments reported by the state-run news agency Xinhua, called the U.S. activity "interference in Chinese domestic affairs, and this is totally unacceptable to China." 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.”
Secretary Clinton spoke to Chen by phone immediately after he left the embassy for the hospital and welcomed the agreement with the Chinese, saying it "reflected his choices and our values." At that time, as Reuters points out, "What initially appeared to be a foreign policy success for the Obama administration could quickly turn into a liability."
Given the suspicion of many human rights activists have that the government could easily renege on the agreement with Chen, one wonders what sort of "values" to which Ms. Clinton was referring.
Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.