May 3rd, 2012
02:34 PM ET

'Mission impossible' diplomacy in Beijing

By Jill Dougherty reporting from Beijing

Under the smoggy skies of Beijing an extraordinary diplomatic and personal drama is playing out in real time: What will be the fate of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, and what role will the United States have?

This drama has no script; new scenes, new acts are being written on the fly. Already it has featured what the U.S. ambassador calls a "mission impossible" effort with senior U.S diplomats bringing Chen - at his request - to sanctuary at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

The plot has twists and turns: Chen first said he wanted to stay in China to carry on his fight for human rights. Now, he tells CNN, he and his family fear for their lives and want to go to the United States.

He says he feels misled by U.S. officials, claiming he was not fully aware of the potential threats should he stay. The State Department counters by releasing photos of Chen as he made the decision to leave the embassy, showing what Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell called a "happy" and "excited" Chen.

There's another main character in this drama: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, playing a demanding dual role, overseeing U.S. efforts to help Chen, plus heading up the U.S. delegation to the Strategic and Economic Dialogue taking place in Beijing, seeking to set the road map for relations between the world's two biggest economies. The latter is the main purpose of her visit here.

In her opening remarks Thursday, Clinton avoided any mention of Chen, but said, "As part of our dialogue, 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."

For a time, with Chen, U.S. diplomats might have thought they were writing a new kind of script. Previous dissidents either stayed in China and were subjected to torture and repression, or left. One well-known example was Fang Lizhi, a key figure in China's pro-democracy movement, who spent a year holed up at the U.S. Embassy and was forced into exile in 1990.

Chen, U.S. officials insist, was intent on staying in China, and envisioned himself continuing to play a public role.

"It was very, very clear all along," U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke told CNN's Stan Grant in an interview on Thursday. "He wanted to be reunified with his family, he wanted to stay in China, to be a freedom fighter. He did not want to go to the United States."

Locke says that, initially, U.S. diplomats had been looking at a potential Fang Lizhi scenario: Chen at one point indicated that he could not accept an initial proposal from the Chinese government to resolve his case and told embassy officials he was prepared to stay on at the embassy.

"We undertook preparations to allow him to stay," Locke said, "and to develop the procedures by which he could be living in the embassy for a conceivable year."

But at the same time, American and Chinese diplomats were working around the clock, trying to resolve the dilemma of Chen's presence at the embassy, which threatened to derail the Strategic and Economic Dialogue set to begin in just days.

After six days in the embassy, Chen opted to go to a hospital to be evaluated and treated for his injuries and other health issues. U.S. officials said the Chinese government had committed to relocate him to a "safe environment" away from the province where he and his family say they suffered brutal treatment at the hands of the local authorities. And, the officials said, China had agreed to investigate the allegations of mistreatment and promised that Chen would not face any further legal issues.

Chen, not trusting Chinese government officials, had demanded his family be brought from their village to Beijing. The authorities got them tickets on a fast train to the capital. They went to the hospital where Chen was to be.

Word that Chen now wants to go to the United States puts the matter back in the spotlight.

Were U.S. officials duped by China? Christopher Johnson, a former senior China analyst at the CIA, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thinks so. In an interview on WNYC radio he said one big question is what kind of assurances the Chinese government offered that Chen's safety would be guaranteed.

"I was somewhat surprised," he says, "I have to admit, that he was released into Chinese custody because, of course, they don't have the best track record on the human rights issue."

"I'm sure there will be those who say: 'Oh, you could've gotten more or you could've gotten this,'" the State Department's Campbell said. "This is the first time that a Chinese person who had suffered, who had complaints, is being relocated and that this kind of investigation is going to take place. Now we'll see, again, how this plays out. But I think what we've accomplished is extraordinary."

Locke painted a vision of a kind of Chinese version of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader and human rights supporter who went from house arrest to being elected to her country's parliament.

"It was his hope that possibly years from now, if China had reformed," Locke told CNN, "he would then be able to go back into society. His first option - his thing that he kept telling us he wanted to do - was to be unified with his family, and to go back out into China to continue his activism."

For now, U.S. diplomats are trying to clarify exactly what Chen wants. "When we feel that we have a clear view of what his final decision is, we will do what we can to help him achieve that," one senior administration official said.

To leave China for the United States, Chen would need a Chinese passport and would have to apply for asylum while on U.S. "soil," which would mean going back to the U.S. Embassy.

Would China go along? Beijing isn't saying. But Chen's presence - either in the embassy or back in his old village - appears now to be a gigantic public relations headache. The government regularly blacks out CNN as reports on Chen's plight are aired, for example. Beijing's desire to punish Chen just might be outweighed by the desire to simply get rid of him.

Diplomatic resolutions often are worked out behind closed doors, allowing the rough edges of disagreement and horse-trading to be smoothed off before the public sees it. Right now, in Beijing, doing "quiet diplomacy" on Chen Guangcheng is tough, as each act is played out under the media spotlight.

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