Did The United States Betray Chen Guangcheng?

What seemed like a diplomatic success has begun to unravel very quickly.

I noted very briefly yesterday the fact that Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist who had taken refuge in the American Embassy just a week ago after somehow escaping from house arrest, had left the embassy for medical treatment after a deal of some kind had been struck with the Chinese government. That deal allegedly included guarantees of Chen’s safety and that of his family, who had stayed behind in his home town after he had escaped. It seemed like a successful end to what could have been a diplomatic crisis. As the day went on, however, the story seemed to unravel and allegations started to fly that called into the question not only Chinese veracity but whether the U.S. had been suckered into getting Chen to agree to a bad deal:

In the hours after he left the embassy on Wednesday with a deal that American officials said included security guarantees for him and his family, there were competing narratives among Chinese rights advocates and elected officials in Washington over whether the arrangement, negotiated by Beijing and Washington, represented an unalloyed victory for Mr. Chen or an expedient and foolhardy concession to China’s authoritarian government.

And Mr. Chen himself seemed to be developing second thoughts about whether he could trust Chinese assurances that he and his family would remain safe inside China.

American diplomats and friends of Mr. Chen say that because he was not seeking political asylum in the United States but wanted to stay in China to continue his legal advocacy work, the agreement was the best denouement for a tense diplomatic drama that threatened to upstage a set of meetings this week, the United States-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and bruise a relationship increasingly vital to both sides.

“I am pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng’s stay and departure from the U.S. Embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement after speaking to Mr. Chen by phone as he was transported to a Beijing hospital for medical treatment.

But that optimism, initially shared by a number of human rights advocates both in China and abroad, began to fray later in the day after Mr. Chen began telling friends and foreign news outlets that he had changed his mind and was now seeking to leave China with his family.

Mr. Chen on Wednesday night told supporters that he had accepted the deal only after Chinese officials threatened his wife. That account, while denied by American officials, could turn what had at first appeared to be a diplomatic triumph for the United States into a darker, more ambiguous tale.

Teng Biao, a lawyer who has provided legal help to Mr. Chen in the past, said Mr. Chen changed his mind after arriving at the hospital and talking to his wife and supporters. Speaking by phone from the hospital on Wednesday, Mr. Teng said that Mr. Chen grew especially concerned by the sight of so many plain-clothed police officers and by the realization that American officials had left the hospital for the evening. “The Chinese government has a habit of failing to keep their promises,” said Mr. Teng, who said he warned Mr. Chen of the potential risks if he stayed in China.

In an interview Thursday morning, Mr. Chen said he was swayed in large part by his wife, who told him how the police had tied her to a chair for two days after he fled and moved into his home. “They even tried to install an electric fence outside my house,” he said. “The police essentially moved into my house. They are in my yard and on the rooftop every single day. They eat and sleep there.”

Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said his initial elation sagged after he participated in a conference call with State Department officials who were trying to explain the deal to American rights groups.  His biggest concern, he said, was that Foreign Ministry officials, not the top Chinese leaders, had provided the assurances for Mr. Chen’s protection. Such guarantees, he said, might not be enough to prevent more powerful, and vengeful, officials in public security ministries from subverting the deal. “The Foreign Ministry is low on the food chain in China,” he said. “It would take considerable political authority to guarantee Chen Guangcheng’s safety in China.”

Renee Xia, international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said the Obama administration was naïve for accepting Beijing’s assurances that it would give Mr. Chen the freedom to continue his work — and his criticism of China’s failure to carry out long-stalled legal overhauls.

“The Chinese promise of Chen’s safety and freedom is unenforceable,” she said. “The government has no credibility — the record speaks volumes to the contrary — and I think this agreement will come back to haunt the Obama administration.”

In The Daily Beast reporter Melinda Liu reports on an exclusive interview with Chen in which he expresses a desire to leave China with his family and says that he felt pressured by American officials to accept the initial Chinese deal:

When U.S. officials escorted him out of the U.S. embassy shortly after 3 p.m. Wednesday, Chen thought he’d extracted a promise that at least one of them would stay with him at the hospital, he said. “Many Americans were with me while I checked into the hospital and doctors examined me. Lots of them,” he told me from his hospital bed, where he’s being treated for broken bones in one foot, an injury sustained when he fell after climbing a wall during his daring escape from house arrest late last month. “But when I was brought to the hospital room, they all left. I don’t know where they went.” The ordeal was all the more bewildering because Chen is blind and was hurt during his escape; he needs crutches or a wheelchair to move around.

The hours ticked by, and Chen became more and more agitated. Even though he’d originally told friends and embassy officials that he wished to remain in China, now he wanted to leave. “I hope to seek medical treatment in the U.S. with my family, and then I want to rest,” he said. “As for the future, we’ll deal with that in the future.” At the hospital, Chen’s fears mounted as his wife told him she’d been tied to a chair, beaten, and interrogated by Chinese guards after they learned he had entered the U.S. embassy in Beijing last Friday.


At the embassy, Chen said he came under tremendous pressure from American officials—“not those from the embassy but others “—to leave the diplomatic facility as quickly as possible. From the very beginning, he said, the assumption was that he would stay in China. “I had no information, I got no phone calls from friends, I was isolated,” he told me, his voice trembling. “Then I heard about the threat that my wife would be sent back home to Shandong if I didn’t leave the embassy. So I left.”

He told me there was no explicit threat that she would be submitted to physical violence, “but nobody had to say it, I know what we’ve experienced all these years back in Shandong. Our home was surrounded by guards, lots of guards. Our friends weren’t allowed to visit. If we tried to go out we’d be beaten, often with clubs.” Security personnel had even escorted his young daughter to and from school; Chen and his wife hadn’t seen their son for two years before their reunion at the hospital.

Human-rights activists are now extremely worried about Chen’s fate, and some are astonished at this startling—and dark—turn of events.

As they should be it would now seem. Indeed, in a subsequent interview with CNN International’s Stan Grant, Chen said that he now feared for his life.  According to reports, once Chen was dropped off at the hospital the officials from the U.S. Embassy that had been accompanying him had disappeared and he’s been unable to meet with any of them since them, although they have apparently spoken with his wife off hospital grounds on more than one occasion since yesterday. What’s unclear is whether this lack of access to Chen is a deliberate decision by American officials, or due to the fact that Chinese officials were preventing them from speaking to him.

There’s no doubt that Chen’s escape placed the United States in a difficult position. Notwithstanding the rhetoric about human rights in China that has come from Washington for years now, starting long before Barack Obama was President, the presence of a man who had been under house arrest in the U.S. Embassy created a serious diplomatic issue for the two nations. The fact that Chen’s family wasn’t with him made the situation even more difficult since it raised the possibility that they would be used as pawns by Beijing to force Chen to relent, which may be what happened in this case. The fact that all of this was happening while two of the highest ranking members of President Obama’s cabinet raised the stakes considerably. Indeed, it  appears rather obvious that Secretary of State Clinton and other State Department officials in Beijing for the meetings became directly involved in the Chen issue almost as soon as they arrived in the country. At least at first glance, it appeared that their intervention had led to a successful resolution of what could have turned into an issue that completely distracted both nations during this week’s meetings.

There are a lot of unanswered questions here. One wonders, for example, why Embassy officials didn’t insist that the Chinese allow Chen to meet with his wife in private before agreeing to any deal. Had he, and they, known about these allegations that local security forces had beaten her after his escape things might have turned out very differently, or at least an effort would have been made to get better assurances of safety for Chen and his family if indeed they stayed in China. One also wonders if perhaps American officials weren’t just a little too eager to get this controversy behind them in order to make sure that they didn’t derail discussions with Chinese leadership of what they considered more important issues. Take note, for example, of Chen’s statement to Melinda Liu in the interview that he felt pressure from American officials “not those from the embassy but others .”

Finally, one wonders what impact this might have on the Obama Administration internationally and domestically. Frida Ghitis, in an opinion piece at CNN.com, puts it this way:

The Chen case, however, could become iconic. If the Obama administration cannot explain what went wrong, it will have opened itself to criticism from human rights advocates and from Republican rivals, that he badly fumbled.

The Chinese government has demanded an apology from Washington for helping Chen and for interfering in Chinese domestic affairs. But the Obama administration, which claimed it had stayed true to American values in the Chen case, needs to prove that it has the moral strength to stand up for one courageous individual who sought help.

This is not just about Chen. It is about universal principles of human rights, really, and about America’s willingness to defend them on the global stage. The whole world is watching.

We can’t save every political prisoner in China, but when they show up at the doorstep of our Embassy and we let them in things change significantly. If it turns out that we’ve turned Chen and his family back over to the wolves that’s going to be something the Obama Administration will have to answer for at some point.

FILED UNDER: Asia, Policing, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that we sacrificed this dissident to our larger purposes — we generally do, and the hard truth is we probably should. But it’s a mess and it looks bad.

  2. @michael reynolds:

    Realism is probably the best course in situations like this. But then we should have the courage to admit we’re realists, instead of talking big and doing little. We can also stop whitewashing other regimes. Stop pretending we think China is a noble country, rather than one we deal with because we have to.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: I think this is just right. Our “human rights must be respected” rhetoric bites us in the ass vis-a-vis China and Russia because they actually don’t–and shouldn’t–drive policy.

    Nor do I think the Bush 43 would have or a prospective Romney presidency would handle this any better. Maybe the Bush 41 team could have avoided the trap altogether.

  4. Vast Variety says:

    This is one of those damned if you do damned if you don’t situations. There really is no answer. If he had escaped to the embassy with his wife and child then Chen might have had a better chance of getting out.

  5. AllenS says:

    According to the link you provided —

    In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast’s Melinda Liu, blind dissident Chen Guangcheng says he’s been abandoned by American officials at a Chinese hospital and begs to leave the country on Hillary Clinton’s plane.

    You must have missed it. Then you commence to make accusations about Bush and Romney. Accusations that you cannot prove whatsoever.

  6. @James Joyner: What could they have done differently? What would the Bush 41 team have done differently? The only other options would be to either really piss off China and let this person emigrate on political asylum (and kill the man’s family in the process), or not even let him into the embassy. Neither is a good move.

  7. Martwriter says:

    Of course the US has betrayed Mr. Chen. Same as the Obama administration did with the students protesting the elections in Iran several years ago.In both cases, diplomats and others say it’s “because of the ‘larger’ scheme of events. The only concern here was to remove Chen from the US Embassy before Hillary Clinton arrived, not to ensure his safety. This so-far bungled affair has not completely played out yet, and will result in a terrible black eye for the Obama administration world-wide. It’s also likely the first nail in the coffin for Hillary’s 2016 presidential campaign.

  8. @Christopher Bowen:

    Not for nothing, but there were several occasions during the Cold War when dissidents from the Soviet Union or other Eastern Bloc countries were given sanctuary in American Embassies. Among these was Cardinal József Mindszenty, the Catholic Primate of Hungary, who lived in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest from 1956 to 1971.

    I’m generally more of a realist when it comes to foreign relations, and perhaps there was no easy answer here, but the prospect that we have thrown this man back to the wolves kind of leaves a sick feeling in my stomach.

    That said, in this particular case the fact that Chen’s family was not with him did complicate matters.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I don’t see it as an either/or. We’re in favor of human rights. And we make practical decisions.

  10. Concerned says:

    For those who are interested, there’s a petition going around that asks President Obama to provide asylum to Chen Guangcheng. You can read it here: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/president-obama-protect-chen-guangcheng/.

  11. @michael reynolds:

    Yes, but we should make it clear how support is primarily rhetorical. That is, Guangcheng should have known that the US embassy was not the best place to go after his daring escape.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    People said the same kind of things in 1956 when Hungary rebelled, and in 1968 on the Prague Spring, and during Tiananmen, and more recently in the Iranian student uprising or various pieces of the Arab Spring. Mr. Chen had no reasonable expectation that we would blow up what is probably our single most important and fraught relationship for him. He had no prior arrangement with the US and I’m frankly a bit surprised the embassy let him in. We can’t let national policy be dictated by one man, however brave and resourceful.

  13. walt moffett says:

    perhaps the State Department can make it clearly understood, embassies can and do not grant political asylum.

  14. @michael reynolds:

    I agree. But we should make that clear. Instead we tend to belch out a lot of over the top rhetoric about how we ceasely fight for the downtrodden and then what to act dismayed when the downtrodden come begging for help.

  15. @Stormy Dragon:

    e.g. The nation that wants to be a political realist has no business going around saying things like “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

  16. Dazedandconfused says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    He left on his own accord. Something else must be making you sick.

  17. @Doug Mataconis: The difference was that during the Cold War, they were actively enemies. Now, China is more of a frenemy. We can’t actively provoke them without expecting huge consequences, especially with so much of our capital locked up as debt.

  18. @Dazedandconfused: “Own accord” my ass. Humpty Dumpty was pushed. The Americans were no longer going to support him, and the Chinese were going to kill his family.

  19. @Christopher Bowen:

    One could argue that the fact that China is not the same type of adversary as the USSR was gives us more leverage on human rights issues. They need us as much as we need them, if not more.

  20. Racehorse says:

    Send in the Seals.

  21. @Racehorse:

    I see, so you’re in favor of a war with China?

  22. @Racehorse:

    Absurd idea. This isn’t worth going to war over.

  23. Tim says:

    Stormy, you should be able to detect sarcasm by now, shouldn’t you? Don’t be so touchy! Please don’t feed the trolls!

  24. @Tim:

    The problem is that, based on Racehorse’s previous comments, I don’t think he WAS being sarcastic.

  25. Dazedandconfused says:

    @Christopher Bowen:

    If he was not willing to apply for asylum, there isn’t much we could do.

    He may regret his choice now, it’s understandable. He damn well should be worried.

  26. Racehorse says:

    One person who might be able to get something done over there is Bill Clinton. He seemed to get along with the Chinese officials and they seemed to like him.

  27. Racehorse says:

    @michael reynolds: Over the years we have had a reasonably good relationship with China, much to the credit of Richard Nixon’s bold foreign policy. One area where the Chinese government is lacking is its record on human rights. They are expected to treat each citizen with respect and justice. If we had a deal with the Chinese concerning this man, then the Chinese are expected to fulfill their end of the bargain. The US does not look highly on countries that renege on deals.

  28. Dazedandconfused says:

    I think a lot of people forget that China not all that long ago was every bit as nuts as North Korea is now. More so, IMO. Millions died of starvation.

    The reforms came incredibly swiftly under Deng Xaioping, and don’t think for a minute he didn’t have an incredibly dangerous and powerful “old guard” to deal with. They are there still.

  29. anjin-san says:

    @ Martwriter

    Why don’t you take an inventory of all the things you own that have “Made in China” stamped on them? Then go look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself that you are not supporting the system that is oppressing Mr. Chen. Maybe you will even be able to convince yourself that it is true.

    If you want to use his plight to score a cheap point at Obama’s expense, I guess I can understand that. It’s not like conservative are dealing from a position of strength. But show Chen some respect, and be honest about your motives.

  30. Tillman says:

    Reminds me of a Law & Order episode involving a Russian human-trafficker who gets into the Russian embassy literally ten seconds before detectives catch up.

  31. matt says:

    @Martwriter: Any amount of obvious support by the USA would of destroyed the Iranian movement pretty much instantly. They don’t want our help they want us to stay the hell out of their business. Which of course we’re not doing because we continue to support terrorist groups in IRan. Oops I mean “freedom fighters” resisting the government and the civilians killed are just collateral damage..

  32. Mary Wilson says:

    USA should help its own citizen illegally blocked in China for 4 years come home!!!