By Jill Dougherty reporting from Beijing
Throughout her nearly 24-hour journey from Washington to Beijing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton avoided the cameras of journalists traveling on her plane.
For nearly a week leading up the trip - ever since the blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng had fled his village home and sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing - both the secretary and her spokespersons refused to answer any and all questions about him, save a tight-lipped "We've got nothing on that for you."
But the U.S. officials did have someting, a full-scale diplomatic mess that would play out not just behind closed doors, but through the media and social media with every few hours bringing a new twist.
His arrival had been dramatic. A U.S. official speaking on background because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue said that embassy officials took a car to retrieve Chen after he fled. Their vehicle was tailed by Chinese security and the Americans took action to evade those vehicles. Embassy staff began preparing for a long stay by Chen, possibly even a year, as another activist had done more than 20 years previously.
The case was beyond sensitive; the timing couldn't have been worse. Secretary Clinton, along with some 20 top U.S. officials, were traveling to Beijing for the U.S./China Strategic and Economic Dialogue and Chen's case was overshadowing every Western media report on the crucial meeting.
At the Beijing airport on Wednesday, as reporters and camera crews were hustled into vans after the morning arrival, Clinton headed for her hotel, ostensibly for some "down time." It was anything but - at 4 p.m., just as U.S. officials were scheduled to begin a media briefing on the trip, the news broke: Chen had left the embassy and was at a medical facility in Beijing, reunited with his family.
Reporters were clamoring for information and, after more than an hour's delay, two senior administration officials finally sat down with them in the hotel filing center. They spoke only on background, however, due to the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue, not allowing their names to be used, and described the deal to free Chen.
This is what they said: Chen would be treated humanely in China; doctors would have access to him; his family would be reunited with him; they would be relocated to a safe location in China where he could study; there would be no remaining legal issues; Beijing officials would investigate the actions of the local authorities. U.S. officials would periodically visit Chen to monitor how the agreement was being carried out.
And there was a striking detail: U.S. officials in a van with Chen as he left the embassy, scrambling to find a cell phone so he could make his first call - to Secretary Clinton. He thanked her for her attention to his case and then, in broken English, one official told reporters, Chen said "I want to kiss you."
But that simple detail, perhaps a sign of what was to come, became a subject of disagreement. Chen later told friends he actually had said "I want to meet you." Later in the week, another version: A U.S. official said on Friday that Chen told Ambassador Locke he lied about the mix-up because he was embarrassed by the "kiss" comment and thought he offended her.
Secretary Clinton finally broke her silence, releasing a statement that read: "Mr. Chen has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment. Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task. The United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr. Chen and his family in the days, weeks, and years ahead."
Not long after, the deal seemed to unravel.
The Chinese government, issued an angry demand for an apology from the U.S. for holding a Chinese citizen. U.S. officials indicated no apology would be given.
Some of Chen's friends questioned the whole deal, claiming to the press and in tweets that Chen had been intimidated into agreeing to leave the embassy because of threats to his wife. One report even quoted Chen as saying he didn't want to stay in China after all, that he wanted to go to the United States.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell denied it. In an exclusive interview with CNN he said: "We have very strict protocols on how we handle these things and on at least three occasions, our wonderful ambassador here, Ambassador Locke, asked him specifically, as we are required to do, with witnesses around, 'Mr. Chen, are you ready to leave the embassy voluntarily' and each time he said 'zum!' which means 'Let's do it, let's go.' "
To back up that claim, the State Department released digital photos of a beaming Chen, hugging American officials, looking pleased with his decision to leave the embassy and be reunited with his family, even if it was in a Beijing hospital.
The disagreement seemed to put the deal for Chen's future on hold. Clinton's diplomatic team, including Campbell, Ambassador Gary Locke and the State Department's legal adviser Harold Koh began again to work non-stop, meeting with their Chinese counterparts, trying to reach an agreement that would honor Chen's wishes.
In the CNN interview with Kurt Campbell, he was asked to describe those talks. "You're working around the clock," he said. "You're facing challenges that, in many respects, are unprecedented."
"We have never had a Chinese person who came into the embassy that wanted to go back," he said. "Almost in all cases they end up leaving, sometimes to a future in the United States that is sad and lonely. But he was determined to go back to China. He wanted to return to his country. And to create the parameters for that to happen, to work with him, to work with the government, to work with our colleagues was enormously challenging."
But Chen's wishes seemed to be changing as he gave interviews seemingly every few minutes with a different media outlet.
The U.S. misled him and abandoned him at the hospital, Chen told CNN's Stan Grant in an interview Wednesday.
"The embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised to be with me at the hospital. But this afternoon soon after we got here, they were all gone," Chen said in the interview. "We are in danger. If you can talk to Hillary (Clinton), I hope she can help my whole family leave China."
Behind the scenes, Clinton was closely involved in the American strategy but, at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, she was silent on Chen. In one speech on Thursday she referred to human rights without mentioning his name: "As part of our dialogue," she said, "the United States raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms because we believe that all governments do have to answer to citizens' aspirations for dignity and the rule of law and that no nation can or should deny those rights."
From the Chinese side, President Hu Jintao saw it differently, saying Washington and Beijing "should approach our differences in a correct way, and respect and accommodate each other's interests and concerns."
Meanwhile, in an extraordinary scene, Chen Guangcheng - on his cell phone - called in from his hospital bed to a hearing on Capitol Hill arranged by his supporter, Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey. "I want to meet with Secretary Clinton," Chen said. "I hope I can get more help from her."
As cameras rolled Smith told Chen that Secretary Clinton should go to his hospital room and "meet with you. And you and your family and your supporters need to be on a plane coming to the United States for, as you put it, that rest that you so richly deserve."
Then, suddenly on Friday, everything changed - again. On its official website, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that if Chen wanted to study abroad, he could apply for a passport to do that, just as any Chinese citizen can. It was the makings of yet another deal. And this one looked as if it could stick.
It came just in time. Hillary Clinton took to the podium with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, wrapping up the trade and security talks and, in a carefully phrased statement, used Chen's name in public for the first time. The U.S. ambassador had spoken with Chen again, she said, "and he confirms that he and his family now want to go to the United States, so he can pursue his studies."
Clinton said the U.S. was "encouraged" by the government statement "confirming that he can apply to travel abroad for this purpose."
"Over the course of the day, progress has been made to help him have the future that he wants, and we will be staying in touch with him as this process moves forward."
A reporter asked whether the deal with the Chinese government would hold - whether the Chinese government was serious about finding a resolution.
After three days of some of the most intense diplomacy several senior officials said they had ever experienced, the secretary was taking no chances. She pulled the blandest expressions she could find from the diplo-speak shelf:
"As I said, we are encouraged by the progress we've seen today," she said, "but there is more to work to do, so we will stay engaged as this moves forward."