I’ve been following this story all day since Ed’s post this morning and I still can’t keep straight what happened. According to Chen, the U.S. told him his wife would be beaten to death if he didn’t leave the embassy, which makes it sound like he was all but forced to go and left to the mercy of the ChiComs. According to the State Department, no such thing happened. Or did it?
An American official denied that account. The official said Mr. Chen was told that his wife, Yuan Weijing, who had been brought to Beijing by the Chinese authorities while Mr. Chen was in the American Embassy, would not be allowed to remain in the capital unless Mr. Chen left the embassy to see her. She would be sent back to Mr. Chen’s home village in Shandong, where no one could guarantee her safety.
“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 spokesperson, 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.”…
“At no point during his time in the Embassy did Chen ever request political asylum in the U.S.,” Ms. Nuland said. “At every opportunity, he expressed his desire to stay in China, reunify with his family, continue his education and work for reform in his country. All our diplomacy was directed at putting him in the best possible position to achieve his objectives.”
That sounds like a distinction without a difference. If China was prepared to send his wife back to the village without security, that’s tantamount to saying her life would be in danger if he didn’t leave the embassy. Meanwhile, the NYT claims the deal reached between the Americans and Chinese would allow Chen to relocate to a port city east of Beijing with his family and enroll in school to study law. I’m not sure what the status of that is right now — did the Chinese really agree? is it still in the works? — but Chen himself is dubious enough about it that suddenly he wants out, out, out:
“The embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised to have people stay with me at the hospital,” he said. “But this afternoon, as soon as I checked into the hospital room, I noticed they were all gone.”
He said he was “very disappointed” in the U.S. government and felt “a little” that he had been lied to by the embassy.
At the hospital, where he was reunited with his family, he said he learned that his wife had been badly treated after his escape.
“She was tied to a chair by police for two days,” he said. “Then they carried thick sticks to our house, threatening to beat her to death. Now they have moved into the house. They eat at our table and use our stuff. Our house is teeming with security — on the roof and in the yard. They installed seven surveillance cameras inside the house and built electric fences around the yard.”
He looked reasonably cheerful in photos with U.S. officials after the deal was made. Then, just a few hours later, he told CNN, “We are in danger. If you can talk to Hillary, I hope she can help my whole family leave China.” The most logical explanation for the sudden turnabout is that China reneged on its deal with the U.S. once they had Chen back in custody, but that would be a huge betrayal at a moment when Hillary’s in the country for talks on a variety of issues. I guess it’s possible that the State Department really did lie to him about the deal to get him out the front door of the embassy, on the theory that preserving good relations between the U.S. and China is more important than saving one dissident from Beijing’s police state. That’s hard to believe, though. If it’s true, it would destroy O’s credibility as a bulwark against China among the Far Eastern nations he’s been courting lately. And if someone in the Department leaked to the media about it, it’d be a huge domestic embarrassment for him and serious campaign artillery for Romney and the GOP. In fact, here’s Boehner’s statement this afternoon hammering O even at a moment when events are in flux:
“Like millions of other Americans, I have followed the story of Chen Guangcheng with admiration for his courage and concern for his safety and that of his family. I am deeply disturbed by the most recent report by the Associated Press, which suggests Chen Guangcheng was pressured to leave the U.S. embassy against his will amid flimsy promises and possible threats of harm to his family. In such a situation, the United States has an obligation to stand with the oppressed, not with the oppressor. Having handed Chen Guangcheng back over to the Chinese government, the Obama administration is responsible for ensuring his safety. While our economic relationship with China is important and vital to the future of people in both countries, the United States has an obligation to use its engagement with China to press for reforms in China’s human rights practices, particularly with respect to the reprehensible ‘one-child’ policy.”
Maybe the State Department calculated that, however horrible it might be to fool Chen into returning to Chinese custody, they had to do it to make sure there won’t be other episodes like this. Realistically, China’s not going to agree to let an infinite number of dissidents apply for asylum in the U.S. It’d be too embarrassing to the regime if its prominent critics started fleeing to its chief rival instead of embracing the ChiCom system. They don’t want to have to deal with this situation again and again and again. But then, neither does the U.S. — it’s too risky for relations with Beijing — and so maybe the terrible decision was made to dissuade other dissidents from thinking they could find safe haven at the embassy by making sure Chen didn’t come out too far ahead this time. I hope that’s not what happened, but I don’t know. Foreign policy is a slimy business.