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Twitter vs. secret diplomacy in the Chen Guangcheng saga

May 5, 2012 |  4:30 am

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The celebrated deal that would have ensured that blind dissident Chen Guangcheng would stay in China began to dissolve publicly with a tweet: “GUANGCHENG TALKED TO ME. WHAT MEDIA REPORTED IS WRONG.” 

The unsettling Twitter message from Beijing activist Zeng Jinyan began a firestorm of debate over whether Chen had been coerced into the deal with threats to his family, an alarming idea that gutted the most important promise behind the agreement -- that Chen would be kept safe.

Zeng also said Chen really said he wanted to “see” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, not “kiss” her, upending a widely reported remark that had seemed to show the dramatic story coming to a happy ending. Other Chinese activists soon followed, sharing their own accounts of what Chen had said.

Foreign reporters contacted Chen via telephone and found him frightened and wanting to leave China. Two days later, plans were in the works for Chen to come study at an American university, as U.S. officials scrambled to rework the initial deal, which was excoriated by human rights groups and Republican critics.

The uproar put Clinton, who has been lauded by staffers as the “godmother of 21st century statecraft” for embracing Twitter and other digital tools, on the flip side of social media. Thanks to Twitter, the "air of privileged secrecy" around diplomacy is becoming harder than ever to maintain, New America Foundation senior fellow Emily Parker argued in the New Republic.

"In the 'Arab Spring' there was this idea that Twitter was a revolutionary force primarily for toppling a dictator," Parker said in a phone interview. "But social media is challenging democracies too."

The Chen deal might well have unraveled without Twitter, through phone calls and the news media. But the rapid-fire pace of social media helped to quickly undercut the official line on what had happened just hours after the agreement was announced, spurring journalists worldwide to follow up. Experts said it was the first time that the digital world has had such a strong sway.

In the past, "it might have taken days or months. It wouldn't have taken minutes," said Nicholas Cull, a USC professor of public diplomacy.

Cull compared the Chen saga with what happened after the U.S. negotiated the 1997 release of Wei Jingsheng, a Chinese democracy activist who had spent more than 17 years in prison. U.S. officials tried to persuade Voice of America not to air an interview with Wei, fearing it would offend China.

Chen and his friends, however, were able to talk directly to the world. Zeng took to Twitter; Chen recorded a video to Premier Wen Jiabao last week that ended up on YouTube.

"It's not just Twitter," said Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network. "It's the idea that [on Thursday] the U.S. Embassy could not be permitted to see Chen -- but he could use his cellphone to talk to the U.S. Congress."

Social media may also have coaxed people to speak out more readily than they would have otherwise. Zeng, whose information threw the official story into question, was reluctant to talk to the media at first, Parker said. Twitter let her test the waters and gauge the response.

Twitter and its Chinese equivalent, Sina Weibo, have also fueled false rumors about Chen. Some reporters flocked to the Washington airport to meet Chen upon his reported arrival from China, only to find that they'd been misled, the Epoch Times reported.

But for good or ill, it's here to stay, Cull noted. The question is how governments will adapt the sensitive business of diplomacy to the new pressures and pace of a digital world.

"Every new form of media has made it harder and harder to conduct secret diplomacy. TV made it harder. Social media made it harder," said Courtney Radsch, senior program manager of the Global Freedom of Expression campaign at Freedom House.

Referring to the 1994 agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, she added, "If you're not going to have another Oslo because you can't meet secretly anymore, you have to come up with new ways of doing things.

"Which I don't think is such a bad idea," she said.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Protesters hold placards with images of blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng during a protest in front of the Chinese central government's liaison office in Hong Kong on Friday. Credit: Vincent Yu / Associated Press

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