Why Did Chen Guangcheng Change His Mind?

So how exactly did the Chen Guangcheng case morph so quickly from diplomatic triumph to campaign disaster? Why did Chen, having said all along that he wanted to stay in China, leave the American embassy and then start saying he wanted to get out of China ASAP?

Over at the American Interest, Walter Russell Mead has a theory:

Why the change of heart? We don't really know, but those who have never spent time in dictatorial countries can have little conception of just how harsh and brutal their police authorities can be, and how good they are at threatening and browbeating those whom they wish to control.

My own very limited encounters with those systems suggest a possible scenario: at some point one or more internal police officials either got to his wife or got to Chen after he'd left the embassy and told him in the most bloodcurdling and alarming way that he was under threat, that they would be watching and waiting, and that his wife and family would meet very unpleasant fates once the security forces got him back out of Beijing. And they would have told him in a very chilling way that he was not to tell anyone about this little conversation.

The liberal do-gooding Foreign Ministry types here in Beijing, the security officials would have told Chen and his wife, talk very pretty, but once you get out of the glare of the television lights, you will be ours again. Out there in the provinces, nobody hears you when you scream.

After that kind of talk, a weary and blind man, much more worried about the safety of his family than about anything that would happen to him, might well change his mind about staying in China -- and might also need to give a good reason for the change of mind without mentioning any recent encounters with the security forces. This is a completely speculative theory with no evidence, and other explanations are possible. But it fits the known facts.

This is indeed speculative, and it may be wrong. But I agree with Mead that Chen Guangcheng, after all he'd been through, was probably in an unsettled psychological state--and that after leaving the embassy he found the reality outside much less congenial than he'd expected. I also agree with the subtext of Mead's account--that whatever happened is more complicated than the narrative some Republicans are starting to push: The perfidious Obama administration cynically sells out a blind man in the name of realpolitik. The Obama folks may be cynical, but they're smart enough to have known that if Chen walked into a bait-and-switch, that would be a big problem not just for him but for them. It doesn't make sense, even in Machiavellian terms, that they'd have wanted to seriously mislead him.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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