State Dept. Praises Chinese Cooperation in Negotiations Involving Chen

By Patrick Goodenough | May 3, 2012 | 4:44 AM EDT

In this photo released by the US Embassy Beijing Press Office, blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng is wheeled into a hospital by U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, right, and an unidentified official at left, in Beijing Wednesday May 2, 2012. (AP Photo/US Embassy Beijing Press Office, HO)

( – Obama administration officials are playing down China’s demands for a U.S. apology for sheltering a blind human rights activist, saying that behind the complaints, Chinese officials cooperated closely in an effort to resolve the diplomatic crisis.

They characterized the negotiations involving Chen Guangcheng as unusual and intense, and they described the resulting, unprecedented deal – allowing Chen to leave the protection of the U.S. Embassy, be reunited with his family and relocated, coupled with a Chinese commitment to investigate alleged abuses against him by officials in his home province – as a reflection of the strength of the bilateral relationship.

But hours after Chen left the embassy, the supposed agreement began to unravel, with Chen – now in the hospital receiving treatment for an injury sustained while scaling walls during his escape from house arrest – voicing fear for his family’s safety and indicating that he wants to leave China.

The U.S. State Department said it will “take a continuing interest in the well-being of Mr. Chen and his family, including seeking periodic welfare visits and raising his case with the appropriate authorities. We will look to confirm at regular intervals that the commitments he has received are carried out.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, stands with Chinese President Hu Jintao during the opening ceremony of the U.S.- China Strategic and Economic Dialogue at the Diaoyutai state guesthouse in Beijing Thursday, May 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Administration officials insisted that, during his embassy stay, he had never requested asylum in the United States but had, on the contrary, wanted to stay in China, continue his rights advocacy work and enroll for university study.

The factors influencing his decision to leave the embassy remain murky, however. Chinese officials said that if he stayed he would lose the chance to be reunited with his family who would be returned to their home in Shandong – an implied threat, given the abuses suffered there.

Chen has endured seven years of harassment, including house arrest, reported assaults on him and his wife, and a four-year prison term, after he exposed cases of coerced sterilization and forced abortion by local officials enforcing Beijing’s notorious “one-child” policy.

“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,” the State Department acknowledged Wednesday.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner at a later briefing was asked repeatedly why that should not have been viewed as an implicit threat of harm to Chen’s wife and children.

“I just can’t parse that from here,” he replied to one of the questions. “I think what our efforts were geared towards was trying to put him in the best possible position to achieve his objectives, again, which were to reunify with his family, to pursue his legal education, and to continue his work on the ground.”

U.S. officials involved in the negotiations during Chen’s six-day stay at the embassy included Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, State Department legal advisor Harold Koh and Ambassador Gary Locke. They shuttled between the embassy and Chinese officials, who did not themselves visit the mission.

Although the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday condemned the U.S. and is demanding an apology, Campbell played down the significance of the complaints, and said that “many of our [Chinese government] interlocutors put a premium on a good relationship between our two sides.”

“On one level, you’re going to see some criticism back and forth, and you can expect that,” he told CNN in an interview in Beijing. “But I can tell you on another, deeper level, I think there’s a recognition that this is an example of how we can work together to deal with challenges that, if handled poorly, can be bad for the individual, bad for our country, bad for their country, and bad for the relationship.”

Asked during a separate interview with National Public Radio about the apology demand, Campbell replied, “Look, we underscored on several occasions to them both publicly and privately this – that this was an extraordinary circumstance with very unusual parameters, and we don’t expect it to be repeated. And I think we’re going to stand by that.”

Campbell said some of the Chinese officials involved in the talks had shown sympathy for Chen’s plight and unhappiness over the mistreatment meted out by Shandong authorities.

“The Chinese government was very clear from the outset that they were prepared to do an investigation [into the abuses],” he added. “And the fact that they brought his family members who had been taken from him quickly to Beijing, I think is a testament of goodwill.”

Little goodwill was evident in China’s official statements on the case, even as the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue attended by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner got under way in Beijing.

“What the U.S. side has done has interfered in the domestic affairs of China, and the Chinese side will never accept it,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin.

China demanded an apology, and that the U.S. thoroughly investigate the matter, hold relevant people accountable and ensure that such an event does not happen again, the Xinhua state news agency quoted him as saying.

An editorial in the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times was derisive of activists like Chen and of the ability of other governments to influence policy in Beijing.

“Quite a few out-of-favor Chinese people have sought to exaggerate their influence by relying on overseas powers. But this is a poor idea,” it said. “The time when foreign governments could guide Chinese authorities in making policy is long gone. In recent decades, hundreds of Chinese ran to the West seeking to put pressure over China, but none of them gained the prominence they wished.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow