Us Embassy Beijing Press Office, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
By JANE PERLEZ and SHARON LaFRANIERE
Published: May 2, 2012
BEIJING — In a series of dramatically conflicting developments on Wednesday, the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng left American custody under disputed circumstances, and what briefly looked like a deft diplomatic achievement for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton turned into a potential debacle.
Mr. Chen, who was inside the American Embassy compound here for six days as the Chinese and American governments negotiated over his fate, left Wednesday afternoon in a deal that American officials hailed as a breakthrough because it would fulfill his wish to live safely in China.
But even as Americans were releasing photographs of a celebratory send-off of Mr. Chen from the embassy, his friends questioned the reliability of any Chinese promises to allow him to live openly in China, and Mr. Chen later said his decision to give up American protection had not been fully voluntary.
In a telephone interview Thursday morning from his bed at Chaoyang Hospital here, where he was receiving treatment as part of the deal between the Americans and Chinese, Mr. Chen, a lawyer who is blind, said he had left the embassy on his own volition after the Chinese government guaranteed that his rights would be protected. But he also said he had felt some pressure because he was told that Chinese officials had threatened to beat his wife to death if he remained under American protection.
Asked if American officials had encouraged him to leave, he said, “To a certain degree.” While he was treated well there, he said, “the U.S. government was not proactive enough.”
He said American officials contacted him Thursday morning and said they would visit later in the day,
In interviews Wednesday with Western journalists, Mr. Chen, said he wanted to leave China, preferably for the United States, because “guaranteeing citizens’ rights in China is empty talk,” an assertion that sharply undermines the American rationale for releasing him from diplomatic protection.
“My safety and my family’s safety are not guaranteed even now,” he said. “Their promises have not been fulfilled.”
The turn of events left Mrs. Clinton to begin her strategic dialogue with her Chinese counterparts on Thursday under a cloud of confusion. It also exposed the Obama administration to criticism from Republicans and human rights groups that it had rushed to resolve a delicate human rights case so that it would not overshadow other matters on the bilateral agenda that Mrs. Clinton previously called more important, including the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs and China’s currency and trade policies.
Earlier in the day, senior State Department officials who had negotiated on Mr. Chen’s behalf said that he had repeatedly insisted he wanted to remain in China, and that the Chinese authorities had made concessions to make that possible. The officials said the Chinese had agreed to allow him to start a new life in Tianjin, a port city near the capital, where he could study law and live with his family. There, he would be free of the harassment and intimidation he had suffered for years at the hands of security officials in a rural village of Shandong Province, they said.
Mrs. Clinton, who arrived in Beijing about six hours before Mr. Chen’s release, said after his departure that the Chinese government had given understandings about his future. “Making those commitments a reality is the next crucial task,” she said.
She also said she was “pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng’s stay and departure from the U.S. Embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values.”
“I was glad to have the chance to speak with him today and to congratulate him on being reunited with his wife and children,” she said.
But the deal began coming apart almost immediately, as the Chinese government issued a blistering statement to domestic news media saying the role the United States had played in the matter “is totally unacceptable to China.” The Foreign Ministry statement insisted that Washington offer an apology and punish officials involved in taking Mr. Chen into American protection.
State Department officials disputed Mr. Chen’s assertion, made in interviews Wednesday with Western news media, that American officials had relayed threats against his family by the Chinese authorities.
The officials said that they had passed along a Chinese message that Mr. Chen’s wife, Yuan Weijing, would be sent back to Shandong if he remained under American care, and that American officials could do nothing to ensure her safety there.
“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,” Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement. “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.”
Mr. Chen’s statement he no longer wanted to stay in China contradicted what American officials said he had told them while in their care, and public statements Mr. Chen had made before he sought American protection.
His reversal, perhaps the result of panic at being left alone in a big Beijing hospital after a long ordeal that had begun with a daring escape from house arrest nearly two weeks ago, or of true second thoughts, could turn out to be a reflection of the American rush to have the scheduled economic and security talks unimpeded by a messy human rights case.
Mrs. Clinton has mentioned Mr. Chen’s bravery in public as one of the most startling among China’s human rights dissidents. But she has also made clear during her tenure as secretary of state that the vital economic and strategic dealings with China cannot become captive to the human rights cases.
Mrs. Clinton left the details of the negotiations over Mr. Chen to two of her top officials, Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and Harold Koh, the State Department legal adviser, and appeared to give her final blessing to the arrangements they had worked out after she landed in Beijing Wednesday morning.
Mr. Campbell said he felt the agreement with the Chinese forged a new model for how Chinese dissidents could stay in China, if they wanted to, rather than seeking residence in another country and losing their voice inside their homeland. He said it was unrealistic to expect that a written accord outlining the Chinese assurances could have been completed.
The deal came under sharp criticism in the United States.
Representative Christopher H. Smith, a Republican from New Jersey and an outspoken critic of China’s human rights record, said that given Mr. Chen’s fears, the administration should have considered granting him asylum.
“There are no safe places in China for dissidents,” Mr. Smith said. “Going to the hospital is no different from going to the police station.”
An outspoken supporter in the United States of Chinese dissidents, Bob Fu, who heads the ChinaAid Association and was involved in Mr. Chen’s escape from security officials last week, said he feared the “U.S. side has abandoned Mr. Chen.”
The trouble for the Americans began to emerge soon after 7 p.m. Wednesday when American diplomats and doctors at the hospital with Mr. Chen, who had injured his foot while fleeing house arrest, were told to leave by the hospital authorities, in accordance with visiting hours, two American officials said.
Mr. Chen said his wife and two children were still with him in his room Thursday after being allowed to stay overnight, but he told friends and reporters who could get through to him on the phone that he had expected round-the-clock American protection. An American official involved in the negotiations said that the embassy called Mr. Chen at 9 p.m. and that he said he was fine.
Jerome A. Cohen, a New York lawyer and a friend of Mr. Chen’s, said the dissident appeared to have panicked after being taken to the hospital. The authorities had cordoned off the room, denied visitors access and apparently limited his phone calls, Mr. Cohen said.
“The trouble is nobody has appeared to stay with him,” Mr. Cohen said of the diplomats who escorted him to the hospital. “That must have produced panic. His friends couldn’t get through.”
Perhaps most difficult for the State Department was the statement by Mr. Chen’s lawyer, Teng Biao, that his client had “changed his mind” and did not feel secure.
Mr. Chen even chose to dispute an account by American senior officials that he was so ebullient in talking to Mrs. Clinton on the phone during his ride to the hospital that he had said in his broken English: “I want to kiss you.” Instead, Mr. Chen said in the interview Thursday, he had said he wanted to “see” her.
Though the outcome of his case remained unclear, American officials said they felt the Chinese had been surprisingly forthcoming in their willingness to discuss the terms of Mr. Chen’s remaining in the country.
Many experts had doubted after Mr. Chen sought American protection that the Chinese authorities would discuss the terms of a Chinese citizen’s rights under Chinese law with the United States, and that the standoff over his case could persist for a long time. Outlining the terms, American officials said the Chinese had agreed Mr. Chen could leave his home province, where he had suffered repeated abuses, and move to one of seven cities chosen by the two sides to study law.
A self-educated lawyer, Mr. Chen indicated he wanted to study law at Tianjin, a city about 40 minutes from Beijing, they said. The Americans pledged to find funds for Mr. Chen’s tuition and family expenses from private sources.
The Chinese also pledged to investigate the Shandong provincial authorities and their harsh treatment of Mr. Chen, something he was most anxious about, the American officials said.