Did the U.S. Fail Blind Chinese Activist Chen Guangcheng? Not Exactly

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From what we know, it appears that Chen may not have wanted to be released from the American embassy, but neither he nor the U.S. had any real choice.

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Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. AP.

Update, 11:00am EST: The AP is now reporting that Chen "was told Chinese officials would have killed his wife had he not left embassy." He also "says he now wants to leave China, fears for family's safety." Sadly, this would seem to confirm reports this he was intimidated into leaving the U.S. embassy. Now that he is back in the hands of Chinese officials, it seems extremely unlikely that either he or his family will be able to return to the embassy.

Update, 11:08am EST: Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch reports, "In briefing to human rights groups senior US gvt officials said that they were counting on NGOs and the media to track Chen's well-being." In other words, the U.S. is conceding that it can't keep Chen safe.

Update, 11:38am EST: This photo appears to show Chen in the U.S. embassy in Beijing about 17 hours ago, or roughly 7 a.m. local time (it's now close to midnight). To the right is U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke, and very-senior State Department official Harold Koh to the left. Koh's title is "legal adviser" but, in practice, he works very closely with Hillary Clinton on high-level issues. The group's cheerful body language is a reminder of how drastically Chen's situation has changed over the course of the day.

Update, 11:55am EST: John Sparks of the UK's Channel 4 News says he secured an interview with Chen in the hospital, which others reporters have been barred from entering. Here are Chen's quotes. The language is a bit abbreviated because Sparks reported the interview on Twitter:

Nobody from the (US) Embassy is here (the hospital). I don't understand why. They promised to be here.

My biggest wish is to leave the country with my family and rest for a while. I haven't had a Sunday in 7yrs

[Channel 4 News] asked Chen Guangcheng - Did you go to the hospital because of medical emergency? Answer: No. I came because of an agreement. I was worried about the safety of my family. A gang of them have taken over our house, sitting in our room and eating at our table.

They are waving thick sticks around. They've turned our home into a prison with 7 cameras and electric fence all around.

When Chen Guangcheng was asked, "What do you want to tell the world?" Answer: that I want to leave China with my family for a while.

Update, 12:01pm EST: UK Channel 4 international editor Lindsey Hilsum clarifies that Chen's interview was over the phone, not in person. He was "confused and upset," she wrote on Twitter. Chen "had thought he'd be safe [because] of US/China agreement but wife scared."



On Sunday, the blind Chinese activist and lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who had made an enemy of his government by challenging the practices of forced abortions and forced sterilization, escaped from house arrest and fled into the U.S. embassy in Beijing. It certainly appeared as if he was seeking asylum -- why else enter the embassy, which he surely knew would infuriate his government? -- though he and U.S. officials insisted that he was not. Today, Chen was released from the embassy back into China.

We still don't know many of the details of what happened, and we may never know for sure what happened inside the embassy, among Chen's family members, or between Chen's family and the Chinese police. What little we do know, however, suggests that Chinese authorities may have intimidated Chen into staying and that the U.S. was ultimately powerless to help him. Here is some of what we do know:

  • Officially, everything with Chen is fine. The official U.S. and Chinese government reports say that Chen wanted to be released, that he will not be returned to house arrest, and that he will be allowed to enroll in a university. He is currently in a Beijing hospital, though police are barring reporters from visiting him.
  • It appears that Chen actually left under Chinese government threats to his family, allegedly including a threat to kill his wife. According to Zeng Jinyan, a high-profile Chinese activist, Chen's wife says that police have moved into her home, where they also installed cameras. The police also reportedly threatened to forcibly relocate Chen's family to rural Shandong province, where he was under house arrest, if Chen did not leave the embassy. Zeng made these comments on Twitter and then confirmed them with a number of reporters, including Austin Ramzy of Time and Steven Jiang of CNN.
  • Chen did not actually want to leave the embassy and was willing to move to the U.S. with his family, also according to Jinyan, who says that Chen called her directly. "He said he hasn't had a phone since Friday, and he hasn't been able to contact friends. He would like to contact Mr. Smith of Congress, but that's impossible. He said he's willing to leave his family behind and leave China," she tweeted in Chinese. (Thanks to The Atlantic's Massoud Hayoun for translation.)
  • Diplomatically, this has not been a cost-free episode for the already tense U.S.-China relationship. "The U.S. method was interference in Chinese domestic affairs, and this is totally unacceptable to China," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. "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."

Chen's stay at the U.S. embassy put the Obama administration into a remarkably difficult situation: if it granted Chen asylum against Chinese wishes, it would infuriate the Chinese government on the eve of a senior-level summit to discuss the many things that America wants from China: help isolating Iran, a tougher Chinese policy on North Korea, more beneficial currency policies, and so on. If the U.S. denied Chen asylum, it would seemingly betray years of U.S. declarations of its support for human rights and democracy, as well as this courageous activist whose release the U.S. has long called for.

But, ultimately, it was not Obama but Chen who was forced into an impossible position. Though he was safe in the U.S. embassy, his family was not. If he had fled for the U.S., it seems that his wife and child would have suffered for his decision. And though the U.S. could have granted Chen asylum, there is no way they could have physically reached his wife and child, whom police would surely block from the embassy.

In staying, Chen is returning to the same Chinese authority that had initially condemned him to house arrest. Chinese officials are promising him freedom for now. The deal for Chen's release, however, appears to have been struck on the pretext that it would allow the Chinese government to appear benign. Now that Zeng Jinyan has reported what she says is the real story -- and it certainly sounds plausible -- China has lost the most important thing it stood to gain from the deal: saving face. Maybe this is dangerous for Chen because it will make Chinese authorities less willing to hold to their end of the bargain, now that they may feel they've been already been betrayed on the deal. Maybe it will be good for Chen because it broadcasts the apparent truth of his situation, putting the world (and especially Western media, about which China cares very much) on higher alert. But it will certainly put Zeng at risk. She has crossed the Chinese government before; her bravery is admirable precisely because it is dangerous.

Today is not a great day Chen, for China, or for the U.S. The Chinese government feels, per its foreign ministry statement, that it has lost face. This feeling tends to lead China is a less democratic, less cooperative direction. Senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, are scheduled to meet with their Chinese counterparts later this week to discuss the broad scope of U.S-China relations. Those talks will be even more difficult than they would have been otherwise. Domestically, the Obama administration has to accept that it had no good options; that Chen's wife and child lied beyond the boundaries of American power. As for Chen, he is safe and out of house arrest for the moment, but he is also living with the knowledge that police have already threatened to harm his family. That genie can never really go back in its bottle.

It appears that it would not be fair to say that Obama administration failed Chen, as there was simply nothing more they could have done. But they didn't really save him, either.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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