Foreign and Defense Policy, Asia

The Chen debacle: Someone’s lying

Those who have been paying attention to the Chen Guangcheng story awoke this morning to the welcome news that he had left the U.S. embassy of his own volition with guarantees from the Chinese government that he and his family would be safe. While it must have been somewhat difficult for U.S. authorities and Chen to believe Beijing was acting in good faith, such was the outcome Chen reportedly favored. To the extent that an activist in Communist China will never be allowed true freedom, this wasn’t a storybook ending. But it was perhaps the best that could be hoped for given Chen’s preference to remain in China.

Unfortunately, it turns out the story’s not over after all. There are now conflicting reports about just what it was that Chen wanted and whether he made his decision to leave the U.S. embassy under duress. The Washington Post reports:

Activists who had spoken with Chen said he had been told that his wife and children, who had been brought to the capital to be reunited with him, would be sent back to Shandong province and could be beaten to death if he did not exit the U.S. diplomatic compound.

Chen told The Associated Press that an unidentified American official conveyed the death threat to him. The State Department is denying the claim, though spokesperson Victoria Nuland did admit that “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.”

According to an activist friend of Chen’s, his wife convinced him to pursue a solution whereby he and his family would leave China together. Others have similarly suggested that Chen had changed his mind about staying in China.

Apparently, things went downhill quickly after Chen’s car ride from the embassy to the hospital where he is receiving medical treatment, with Chen telling friends of the threats to his family and conveying apprehension about his circumstances. After arriving at the hospital, Chen “soon found himself surrounded by Chinese plainclothes police, with no American diplomats in sight.” Chen told Britain’s Channel 4 from his hospital room, “Nobody from the (U.S.) embassy is here. I don’t understand why. They promised to be here.”

Bottom line: Someone’s lying about what went down in the embassy or shortly thereafter. Either a State Department official conveyed to Chen a Chinese death threat to his family or Chen, for reasons that don’t appear at all obvious, is making it up.

Still, two things are certain. First, the U.S. commitment—to remain “engaged with Mr. Chen and his family in the days, weeks, and years ahead” (Secretary of State Clinton’s words)—apparently ended once Chen was dropped off at the hospital and effectively delivered into the hands of the Chinese police state.

Second, with Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner descending on Beijing for the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the State Department was eager to resolve the Chen question as rapidly as possible. Did haste lead to an even bigger crisis?

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