Pool photo by Jason Lee
By MARK LANDLER, JANE PERLEZ and STEVEN LEE MYERS
Published: May 3, 2012
WASHINGTON — The Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng’s abrupt reversal and plea for protection from the United States has deepened a diplomatic crisis and exposed the Obama administration to withering criticism that its diplomats miscalculated when they negotiated his departure from the American Embassy in Beijing.
Mr. Chen’s request for help from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — repeated in an urgent telephone call played on speaker during an emergency Congressional hearing on Thursday — frayed a fragile deal American officials negotiated a day before the start of high-level talks between China and the United States.
Mr. Chen has now proposed that he and his family be allowed to visit the United States temporarily, rather than request permanent asylum there, according to an American lawyer, Jerome A. Cohen, who has advised him this week. The proposal, Mr. Cohen said, could be a face-saving solution for China, defusing a situation that threatens relations between the two countries.
As the State Department tried frantically to reassess the options for Mr. Chen, who is now at a hospital in Beijing being treated for an injured foot, senior American officials privately acknowledged missteps in the handling of the case. The United States failed to guarantee access to Mr. Chen at the hospital, they said, leaving him isolated and fearful that China would renege on its pledge not to harass him and to allow him to resume his legal studies.
The diplomats also rushed their negotiations with the Chinese government to try to resolve the situation before the start of two days of talks with China on economic and security issues, led by Mrs. Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, these officials said. That left no time to obtain firm, detailed assurances from Chinese officials on how they would treat Mr. Chen, a blind lawyer and activist who had been exposed to years of house arrest and beatings in his home village in eastern China and last month escaped to the United States Embassy in Beijing.
With Mr. Chen expressing fears for his safety and pleading for President Obama to intercede on his behalf, the administration faced a barrage of criticism from Republican lawmakers and human rights activists that its bungled handling of the case had left one of China’s most prominent dissidents at the mercy of the Chinese police.
The Chen case has rapidly become an issue on the campaign trail, with Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, accusing the American diplomats of racing to reach an agreement with China and then failing to verify it.
“We’ve heard some disturbing things from across the world that suggest that, potentially, if the reports are true, some very troubling developments there,” he said on Thursday in Portsmouth, Va. “If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom and it’s a day of shame for the Obama administration.”
The administration defended its actions, saying it had made extraordinary efforts to bring Mr. Chen to safety inside the embassy and honor his wishes once there. Mr. Chen, officials said, had left of his own free will after a plan had been worked out with the Chinese government that he and his family could relocate to a city close to Beijing where he would pursue his law studies.
“At no point during his time in the embassy did Mr. Chen ever request political asylum in the U.S.,” said the White House press secretary, Jay Carney. “And at every opportunity, he expressed his desire to stay in China, reunify with his family, continue his education and work for reforming his country. All of our diplomacy was directed at putting him in the best possible position to achieve his objectives.”
Guo Yushan, a friend of Mr. Chen’s who spoke to him by phone Thursday night, said Mr. Chen was not interested in seeking asylum outside the country; his desire, he said, was to go to the United States for a few months and then return to China. “He never complained, either directly or indirectly, that the American Embassy had ‘forced’ or induced him to leave the embassy,” Mr. Guo wrote on Twitter and Weibo, a Chinese microblog service. “He left the embassy voluntarily and appreciates from his heart the American Embassy’s help during the past week.”
The messy fraying of the diplomacy has put the administration’s top China advisers under scrutiny — as well as its broader policy, which has treated human rights concerns as one issue among many in the complex relationship between the United States and China.
The two Americans who led the negotiations — Kurt M. Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Harold H. Koh, the State Department’s legal adviser — are seasoned diplomats. Mr. Koh, a former dean of Yale Law School, is a prominent legal scholar on human rights issues. Mr. Campbell has deep Asian experience, though he is viewed as more of an expert on Japan than China.
Gary Locke, the American ambassador to China who was also a crucial negotiator, is a Chinese-American lawyer, former Commerce secretary and governor of Washington. But he is working in China for the first time.
In Washington, the Obama administration lost two of its most experienced China experts with the departure this year of Jeffrey A. Bader as senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, and James B. Steinberg as deputy secretary of state.
By contrast, the lead negotiator for China, Cui Tiankai, the vice minister for foreign affairs, has worked on the United States for more than three decades.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers and human-rights activists questioned the administration’s actions and assailed China’s record of human-rights abuses. Speaking at a hearing of a commission on China, Representative Frank R. Wolf, Republican of Virginia, said, “it is hard to comprehend why the administration would accept at face value assurances that Chen would be safe upon exiting U.S. protection.”
At one point, the commission’s chairman, Representative Christopher H. Smith, Republican of New Jersey, left the room and returned to announce that Mr. Chen was on the phone from his hospital room in Beijing.
Mr. Chen reiterated his desire to travel to the United States, though not necessarily to seek asylum. “I want to meet with the Secretary Clinton,” he said in remarks translated by Bo Fu, a Christian pastor who has championed Mr. Chen and others facing repression in China. “I hope I can get more help from her.”
Several China experts noted that the State Department team also could have anticipated that a verbal agreement with China’s Foreign Ministry, which is not considered among the most powerful organizations inside the Chinese bureaucracy, would not necessarily constrain the actions of security forces. Plainclothes security officers moved in and restricted access to Mr. Chen shortly after he left the American Embassy and entered a Beijing hospital, causing him to worry for his safety soon after he gave up American protection.
Privately, administration officials acknowledged they had not followed through at the hospital, where Mr. Chen, after talking to his wife, began to fear for the safety of his family, and where their access to him remained restricted on Thursday.
In retrospect, the officials said, the American negotiators could also have paid more attention to Mr. Chen’s wife, Yuan Weijing, and the effects of her reunification with her husband in the hospital, American officials said.
Mr. Chen told reporters and friends in telephone calls from the hospital that he was outraged by threats his wife had received from security guards at their house after he escaped.
“The opportunity for a tactical victory was very powerful,” said Christopher K. Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies who until recently was a senior China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. “Looking at the possible strategic downside didn’t occur to them.”
Mr. Cohen, the lawyer and an expert in Chinese law, said Mr. Chen’s mood swung wildly at the hospital, something the Americans failed to anticipate. “They may have relied too much on his emotional stability,” he said. “And they should have at least negotiated to have stayed with him at the hospital overnight.”
One person who knows Mr. Chen said it was not surprising that he became unnerved once American officials left, after days of marathon negotiations, all conducted through translators.
After years of living in semi-solitary confinement, his fears appeared to have been magnified in the unfamiliar environment. He was also upset that his dinner was not delivered by 9 p.m. Wednesday, telling a friend that “retaliation” had begun.
On Thursday night, Mr. Chen appeared to temper some of his earlier statements, in particular his assertion that American diplomats had pressured him into leaving the embassy. The comments suggested that Mr. Chen was not fully aware of the crisis his comments caused the day before. “He was totally astonished by this and felt very sorry for the pressure on the American Embassy created by these reports,” Mr. Guo wrote.