Dissident's saga: bold escape, secret talks, second thoughts
The story of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng's escape involved intrigue, heroics and ultimately what some people involved called a betrayal.
The New York Times
Injuries suffered in the course of a daring nighttime escape. A covert appeal from underground activists to top State Department officials for humanitarian protection. A car chase through the streets of Beijing to spirit a dissident to safety inside the fortified U.S. Embassy.
Those are among the new details that emerged Wednesday from the saga of Chen Guangcheng, the dissident who escaped house arrest in rural Shandong province, and then, after reaching Beijing and coming under U.S. protection, was the subject of a series of highly unusual secret negotiations with the Chinese government.
The story involved intrigue, heroics and ultimately what some people involved called a betrayal. And it is a tale, related by activists, friends of Chen's and embassy officials, that does not have a clear ending.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome, the tale of what happened to Chen, who has been blind since childhood, and how he was handled by the Americans is likely to be remembered for years.
"Chen's triumphant escape from his barbaric confinement is inspiring to all of us," said Li Fangping, a lawyer who represented Chen during the trial in 2006 that led to more than four years of imprisonment on what he said were legally dubious charges. "Whatever the eventual outcome, it can only have a positive influence on China's human-rights situation."
No legal charges
The seeds of Chen's flight were planted months ago, friends and supporters said, when he and his wife began plotting his escape from the farmhouse where they had been confined since his release from jail in September 2010.
Although there were no legal charges pending against the couple, local officials had turned their home into a makeshift prison with high walls, well-paid guards and sheets of metal to cover their windows.
The local government's goal was twofold: to prevent Chen from engaging in his legal work against coercive family-planning policies and to keep the couple cut off from the outside world.
When the Chens broke the rules — by trying to sneak out messages or secretly detailing their mistreatment in a homemade video — they were beaten, they said.
As part of the plan, Chen feigned sickness for weeks, tricking his minders into thinking he was bedridden. On a moonless night April 22, he began a mad dash from Dongshigu village, heaving himself over the first of several walls while the guards slept. It was during the first few minutes of his scramble that Chen severely injured his foot. In all, he told friends he fell 200 times as he made his way to a predetermined pickup point.
Once there, he slid a battery into the cellphone he had and called He Peirong, a former English teacher from Nanjing. She was part of a loose network of freelance rights advocates who had been trying to draw attention to his plight for more than a year. She had tried in previous months to visit Chen and his wife several times. But each attempt was repelled by the guards. Sometimes they beat her and robbed her. With Chen in her car, a decision had to be made: Try to surreptitiously leave the country with the help of Christian activists, or stay in an attempt to establish an independent life within China.
"Chen made it clear that he had no interest in becoming an exile," said Bob Fu, an exiled Chinese dissident whose Midland, Texas-based organization, ChinaAid, has helped others make the overland escape. "He wanted to stay in China and try to make things better."
He followed Chen's wishes and drove him more than 300 miles to the capital, Beijing. There, he was taken in by some devoted supporters who made sure he slept in a different apartment each night while they tried to come up with a plan.
"By the time I saw him he was in so much pain from his injury he couldn't even stand," said Hu Jia, a dissident in Beijing who taunted authorities by posting on the Internet photos of their meeting. "Our main goal was to get him to a safe place."
It was decided that only the U.S. Embassy could provide that kind of protection. Another friend contacted the embassy, explaining that Chen had a serious foot injury and needed help, according to a U.S. official involved in the discussions.
The matter was brought to the attention of Harold Koh, the State Department legal adviser who was in China on another matter. After consulting senior State Department officials, Koh determined Chen's injury and blindness qualified him for short-term humanitarian assistance in a "good Samaritan way," one of the officials said.
A rendezvous point was agreed upon in an area some miles west of the embassy where an official car would meet the vehicle carrying Chen. The plan was for the lawyer to be helped into the embassy car.
But as the two vehicles were about to converge, the Americans noticed Chinese security cars tailing them, one behind the embassy car, the other behind the car with Chen and his friend, a U.S. official who was briefed on the events said.
It was clear the handoff would have to happen in a rush. As Chen's car moved into an alley, the embassy vehicle drew alongside, and the lawyer was pulled into the U.S. vehicle. The Americans evaded the two Chinese cars and headed for the embassy, the official said.
Once he was safely inside a Marine dormitory, U.S. diplomats imposed an information blackout — even refusing to confirm whether Chen was in their hands — as they negotiated his fate with senior Foreign Ministry officials.
Inside the embassy, the Americans asked Chen about his desires; he made it clear he did not want to make a request for asylum. Instead, during his talks with Koh, the State Department legal adviser, and Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, he spoke fervently of his desire to stay in China, to be reunited with his wife and two children, and to start a new life away from Shandong.
"He told us some very sad stories of his own life," Campbell said. "He made very clear from the beginning he wanted to remain in the game in China and keep his family safe."
The U.S. ambassador, Gary Locke, who rushed back from a vacation in Bali to participate in the negotiations, also spent several hours each day talking to Chen.
Chen's wishes, the Americans said, formed the basis of negotiations with Chinese diplomats who appeared to have been instructed by higher authorities to find a solution before the start of scheduled talks with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
The two sides agreed on a list of seven cities where Chen, a self-taught lawyer, could further his law studies; Chen settled on Tianjin, near Beijing.
On Wednesday, as the negotiations with the Chinese appeared to meet Chen's requests, specific terms of how and why he was leaving the embassy were spelled out to him, Locke said.
"We have a very strict protocol where we had to specifically ask him, 'Are you willing to go and is this what you want to do,' " Locke said. "Unless there is an affirmative in front of witnesses, we won't allow anyone or let anyone leave a consulate or embassy." A written document with details of assurances by both sides was not feasible because it would have taken too long to finalize, officials said.
In the end, they said, Chen did not hesitate. When Locke asked if he was ready to go to the hospital where his wife and family were waiting, Chen replied, "zou," using the Chinese for "let's go," a U.S. official said.
But the exhilaration faded not long after Chen was reunited with his family. His wife told him she had been threatened by officials, and after speaking by phone with several supporters, Chen seemed to have a change of heart.