What do you think about Chen's chances of continuing his activism now that he is back in Chinese hands?
Look, I'm not wildly optimistic given the Chinese track record and
their current state of insecurity and toughness at home. Having said
that I think it's very premature to give up hope. I would note that they
brought Chen's family together and that they engaged in unprecedented
negotiations for this deal. That does not give us any assurances for the
future. But clearly the administration would do absolutely everything
it can to solve this problem.
Can you recall any similar experiences during your time as
ambassador when a political dissident appeared on the doorstep of the
When I was serving in China there was more freedom of discussion and
contact with dissidents than there is today. China has gone backward in
this respect. I, my wife, and our embassy personnel where in constant
contact with reformers and dissidents. We had many at our residence at a
regular basis during my tenure (Nov. 1985 to April 1989). I left the
day after demonstrations in Tiananmen Square started and the day of Hu Yaobang's
funeral. It was a coincidence of timing. I'm sure the embassy, and
embassies since then try as best they can to stay in touch with
reformers, and there may be more contact than I'm aware of. I just know
it has gotten much more difficult.
I think the current situation is due to the overwhelming instinct of
the Communist Party to maintain control. I think it's Gorbachev's
experience, I think it's fear of the Arab Spring and of the social media.
Chen's escape coincided with a high-profile visit by Hillary
Clinton to China. In your experience, how much do you think such a
public visit would have influenced the U.S.'s handling of the Chen
Obviously such a high-level and important visit enters into the
calculation on this. But my reading of the administration is that they
felt that the Chinese had a tremendous self-interest in the strategic
dialogue going well as well as the Americans, and therefore that the
best bet to get a deal was to move quickly so that both sides could get
this issue out of the way before the high-level meetings. So this would
be positive reasoning for trying to move quickly on this issue.
Otherwise it would hang over the talks and probably drag on for a long
period rather than being resolved.
Do you think China's current geopolitical clout makes the U.S. more reluctant to harbor a dissident such as Chen?
No. Both on grounds of principle and knowing the people involved, the
administration would be doing its utmost on grounds of humanity, let
alone politics, to protect this courageous individual. It does not
matter how strong China is -- the administration would be acting in the
same way both on the grounds of principle and in terms of domestic
politics in the U.S.
What effect, if any, do you think this incident will have on U.S.-China relations?
The only honest answer is it's too early to tell. If it goes badly it
could have a major impact in a negative way. Even then I would point
out that we've had the Taiwan missile crisis, airplane collisions, and a
bombing of a Chinese embassy, and the two sides always get back on
This article originally appeared at Asia Society, an Atlantic partner site.