I’ve known Chen Guangcheng for more than a decade—he’s been through intimidation, beatings, jail, and extralegal house arrest—but through it all I never sensed he was scared. Now he’s scared. Chen, whose case has escalated into a bilateral crisis that threatens to dominate Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Beijing this week, was weeping as he talked to me over the phone from his hospital bed.
Chen says he now wants to leave China as soon as possible: “My fervent hope is that it would be possible for me and my family to leave for the U.S. on Hillary Clinton’s plane.”
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.
John Avlon and Rula Jebreal discuss Chen Guangcheng
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.
As dinnertime came and went, he and his wife and two young children, who had traveled to Beijing, had nothing to eat. Their 6-year-old daughter began crying from the hunger pangs. “I kept asking the hospital personnel for some food, but it never came. I asked many times.” Finally, around 9 p.m., some food was sent in after friends contacted American officials for help. But Chen says his numerous attempts to reach the U.S. embassy directly during those dark hours failed: “I tried to phone the embassy three or four times last night, but nobody answered.” As of Thursday at 8:30 a.m. Beijing time, he said he has had no contact with American officials since after he entered his hospital room.
“I need your help, I’m absolutely, absolutely ready to fly out on Hillary Clinton’s plane. Please tell the embassy what I’m saying.”
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. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had described Chen's departure as reflecting "his choices and our values"; State Department officials said Chen was asked several times if he was departing of his own volition and his reply was "Zou!" or "Let's go!" U.S. officials also said they had reached an understanding with Chinese authorities that Chen would be allowed to pursue his education in a location away from his home province of Shandong, to follow up on his work as a self-taught "barefoot lawyer".
In Washington, the State Department went into crisis-management mode, telling reporters and human rights activists that from the beginning Chen said he wanted to stay in China with his family.
On Wednesday morning, three senior Obama administration officials hosted a teleconference with representatives of human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Human Rights China to discuss the case of the blind legal scholar.
On the call were Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor; as well as Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia; and Samantha Power, the National Security Council senior director for multilateral affairs. According to one participant on the phone call, the Obama administration officials had to beat back questions from the activists based on stories breaking that said Chen wanted asylum in the United States. "They told us not to believe the first reports but also said they were looking to confirm reports at this stage," one participant in the call told The Daily Beast.
Early in the day, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland issued a statement denying reports that the U.S. conveyed threats to Chen about his wife while he was at the embassy. "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," Nuland also said.
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, “There are serious concerns over whether the Chinese government will honor commitments it made to the U.S. government to not persecute Chen and his family members." She added, “Not only does the Chinese government have an appalling track record on human rights, but Chen himself has also already reported receiving threats to his family’s safety by government officials and fearing for his and their security.”
“[Chen's current situation] totally contradicts the rosy picture" I got in a conference call I had with U.S. officials Wednesday morning. They summarized the situation, and it sounded like a beautiful, happy scene,” said Bob Fu, president of the U.S.-based ChinaAid Association, which has acted as a facilitator in Chen’s case. “They said they’d send some photos of Chen ‘joyfully’ leaving the embassy.” Last week Fu had offered to transport Chen out of China via an “underground railroad”—but at the time, Chen declined.
Fu had spoken by phone with Chen shortly before I had. “He was very heavy-hearted,” Fu said. “He was crying when we spoke. He said he was under enormous pressure to leave the embassy. Some people almost made him feel he was being a huge burden to the U.S.” Chen decided to leave, Fu confirmed, because he was told “he would have no chance of reunification with his wife and children if he didn’t. The choice presented to him was walk out—or stay inside and lose his wife and kids. Chen had no choice but to go.”
Fu confirmed also that Chen seemed “absolutely clear” that he wanted to go to the U.S. now. And Fu said his offer to help Chen leave via a network of sympathizers inside China was still open: “Absolutely. If there’s an opportunity for us to get him and his family out, as a secondary option, we can do it. We have the tools and the personnel to do it. He can be out in 24 hours.”
But in order to go abroad, Chen and his family need passports—and in order to apply for them, the family would have to go back to Shandong, where the provincial thugs are waiting. “If the U.S. can intervene, and if the Chinese central government can make a phone call, those passports can be ready in a day. It might require a diplomatic push,” said Fu hopefully. “Nothing would make me happier than to get Chen and his family onto Hillary’s plane out of there.”
And nothing would thrill Chen more, either. “Please try to contact the embassy to send someone over here. I need your help, I’m absolutely, absolutely ready to fly out on Hillary Clinton’s plane. Please tell the embassy what I’m saying, Meiyuan,” he pleaded from his hospital room, using my Chinese name. “I don’t know why the Americans didn’t answer my phone calls.”
With reporting from Eli Lake