That U.S. officials bungled the rescue of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng from Chinese repression of his human rights work seems undisputed. But the diplomatic train wreck was also an international embarrassment for China, which may be why Beijing has so swiftly agreed to let Chen go abroad "to study."
But the latest purported resolution doesn't wash away the stain of this messy episode in U.S.-China relations.
After U.S. diplomats persuaded the 40-year-old activist on Wednesday to leave the protection of the U.S. Embassy, he was driven to a Beijing hospital to reunite with his family and get treatment for a foot injury suffered during his escape from house arrest two weeks earlier. And there he was left alone -- ostensibly because his U.S. escorts had to leave when visiting hours ended -- to ponder the sincerity of promises reportedly made by a regime that has so far reacted to his human rights activism with detention and beatings of his family members and supporters.
No wonder that in the dark of night Chen was overcome by doubts about the fate awaiting him once the U.S. delegation decamped from high-profile economic and security talks, which had been thrown into turmoil by the controversy over his six-day refuge at the U.S. Embassy.
Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor who has advised Chen over the years, told journalists that the deal cut by U.S. officials with the Beijing authorities was supposed to have been publicly endorsed by President Obama. That was expected to put pressure on China to live up to assurances that Chen would be left in peace to study law at a university of his choosing, free of the mistreatment previously meted out in punishment for his exposure of forced abortions and other abuses under China’s one-child policy.
The White House never got the chance -- or didn't use it -- to tout its successful resolution of a human rights standoff, as Chen, left alone to contemplate his worst fears, began telling friends and Western journalists he wanted out of China.
"The trouble is nobody appears to have stayed with him, and that might have induced panic," Cohen said of the baffling decision to leave Chen on his own.
My colleague, Beijing Bureau Chief Barbara Demick, talked with exiled dissent Tang Baiqiao, an activist from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests who now lives in New York. Tang told her that the human rights community in China and elsewhere worries that Washington and Beijing cut corners in their haste to make a deal that would prevent the Chen affair from becoming a distraction during this week’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue, where Cabinet-level officials are tackling trade matters and mulling how to contain security threats emanating from the likes of Iran and North Korea.
At the opening of the talks Thursday, Clinton gave an edited version of what she had intended to say about human rights. The United States “raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” to encourage all governments to respect their citizens’ “aspirations for dignity and the rule of law,” she said. According to the transcript prepared by her staff, she was supposed to have said U.S. officials “look to China to meet its international obligations to protect universal human rights and fundamental freedoms.” She left out that more direct challenge.
The initial Chinese government and media reaction to Chen’s alleged decision to stay in his homeland -- before he rescinded it -- was hardly comforting. A Foreign Ministry spokesman accused Washington of interfering in China’s domestic affairs and demanded an apology. A tabloid run by the official Communist Party People’s Daily disparaged Chen as a dupe of foreign powers with an inflated opinion of himself.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland must be suffering whiplash from the back-and-forth she's had to put out about Chen's hopes of escaping repression. She said he never asked for U.S. asylum during 30 hours of talks with diplomats during his stay at the embassy, then reported on Thursday that he and his family "have had a change of heart about whether they want to stay in China.”
On Friday, the Chinese government observed that Chen was free to go abroad to study, like any other Chinese citizen -- a political lifeline extended to the Obama administration, which had quickly come under fire for abandoning the human-rights champion to his oppressors.
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney seized on the diplomatic blunder. On a campaign swing through Virginia on Thursday, Romney called Chen’s departure from U.S. protection “a day of shame for the Obama administration” and a dark day for the cause of freedom.
Obama, Clinton and State Department legal advisor Harold Koh came in for scathing criticism at a congressional hearing Thursday, when China Aid Assn. founder Bob Fu called Chen on his cellphone and put the dissident on speakerphone to announce his plight to the lawmakers.
"I want to come to the U.S. to rest. I have not had a rest in 10 years," the weary dissident said from his hospital bed, asking that Clinton visit him before leaving Beijing for India this weekend.
Michael Horowitz of the conservative Hudson Institute think tank blasted the administration for abandoning Chen, saying Koh and the U.S. diplomats had “thrown him to the wolves” in an unnecessary rush to resolve a standoff in which time and right were on the U.S. side.
Obama lost his chance to wrest more reliable assurances of Chen's safe future in his homeland when diplomats allowed themselves to be used as conduits for the threats relayed by Chinese officials, who warned that Chen's family would pay, perhaps with their lives, unless he "voluntarily" left the embassy and eased Beijing's embarrassment over the standoff.
The Chinese leadership must have had its own change of heart in realizing a return to the status quo of punishing Chen for his activism would do more harm than good for the nation's image and authority in matters as important as human rights.
Photo: In this photo released by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, U.S. ambassador to China Gary Locke, left, makes a phone call as he accompanies blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, right, in a car en route to a hospital on May 2. Credit: U.S. Embassy Beijing Press Office