Hours after Chen Guangcheng agreed to leave the U.S. Embassy in Beijing Wednesday under a deal that would let him relocate within China, he changed his mind. The blind Chinese dissident and his family now want asylum in the U.S., and late Thursday he made a plea by phone to Members of Congress. American diplomats seem to be negotiating again on his behalf, only now they have less leverage.
A photo from the U.S. Embassy Beijing press office shows activist Chen Guangcheng, left, accompanied by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, right, and U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, center, in Beijing.
So much, then, for the feel-good story about smart U.S. diplomacy in which everyone comes out a winner. Instead we have a case of claims and counter-claims—with the potential to tarnish America’s reputation as a defender of human rights. In one interview after he left the embassy, Mr. Chen accused U.S. officials of passing along Chinese government threats to harm his wife. U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke denies that claim, and Mr. Chen has also said that the U.S. protected his interests.
Mr. Chen’s apparent inconsistencies may be forgiven. After being injured during a traumatic escape from house arrest, he was vulnerable to Chinese government manipulation. The Chinese Foreign Ministry agreed to bring Mr. Chen’s wife and daughter to Beijing to encourage him to accept the deal. But it then threatened to send them back to Shandong, where they faced violent retribution from local officials, if he didn’t leave the embassy.
This must have left Mr. Chen feeling that his back was against the wall. It didn’t help that the U.S. didn’t allow Mr. Chen to have a cell phone or call his friends freely while in the embassy. It also didn’t help that Mr. Chen says the U.S. pressed him to make a quick decision, almost certainly so the issue could be settled before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s arrival in Beijing for a Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
Once Mr. Chen left the embassy and called fellow dissidents, they expressed doubts about the deal. U.S. officials promised to stay with him in the hospital but then disappeared. It’s hardly surprising that he grew anxious once he was back under the thumb of Chinese police.
Now more than Mr. Chen’s best interests are at stake. The case will reverberate within China and in U.S.-China relations for years. In response to Beijing’s demands that the U.S. apologize for sheltering Mr. Chen for six days, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell—who had helped negotiate the deal—said “this was an extraordinary circumstance” and “we don’t expect it to be repeated.”
That may have been diplomatic of Mr. Campbell, but it was credited by Chinese state media as a sign of “contrition.” It certainly smacks of weakness that could end up harming Mr. Chen, his family, and U.S. interests.
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page 16
A version of this article appeared May 4, 2012, on page A12 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: U.S. Weakness in Beijing.