There’s a lot we don’t know about the Chen Guangcheng story, and why it became a crisis that almost derailed the US-China relationship. But the New York Times account of the saga, which appeared Wednesday, is the closest we’ve come to getting the story, and it begins to look like the State Department, overly concerned with the welfare of a single anti-abortion activist, almost sent relations with China into a tailspin—without the White House’s input.
Chen is leaving China soon, and the tumult is over. But it’s clear that the case might have inflamed relations badly enough that Chinese hardliners, who are engaged in a behind-the-scenes struggle over policy toward the United States and over the next leadership in Beijing, could have retaliated in ways that would not have been good for either China or the United States.
According to the Times, President Obama wasn’t even notified of Chen’s sudden arrival to seek asylum in the American embassy in Beijing until after the fact. “Obama,” reported the Times, “was first notified when Mr. Chen was already in the embassy.” Huh? Is that possible? That an event so momentous and rare can occur with the president’s knowledge?
Apparently, it was the doing of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the State Department, especially Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state:
After a late-night meeting at the State Department on April 25, Mrs. Clinton approved a plan to spirit him into the embassy, an operation that involved hustling him from one car to another twice. “Everyone understood the magnitude of the decision, how unpredictable it was, and that there would be consequences,” the senior official said.
With Mr. Chen inside the embassy, the administration held a series of meetings in Washington to decide how to manage the crisis—with the State Department leading the effort and the White House overseeing it through frequent secure videoconference calls. On April 27, Mr. Campbell informed the Chinese ambassador in Washington, Zhang Yesui, of Mr. Chen’s whereabouts. The diplomat appeared stunned.
Stunned, and angry.
The delicate dance that followed included a series of misunderstandings, apparently, with Chen first agreeing to leave the embassy for a nearby hospital, then changing his mind. He accused the United States of conveying a threat from the Chinese that his family might be harmed, although US officials say that’s not true. An American diplomat who was in the hospital room with Chen left so that Chen could have private time with his wife, and in the great hubbub of the news cycle, cable TV and politics, that even was transformed into the United States abandoning Chen. Later, it turned into a near–Keystone Kops event, according to the Times:
The Americans, fearing that the Chinese would restrict access to Mr. Chen’s hospital, even considered disguising an employee as a nurse to gain entry.
There’s no doubt that Chen, and many, many other Chinese dissidents are treated miserably and often cruelly. But the last thing that United States–China relations needs is another irritant. It’s bad enough that Clinton’s State Department has sided repeatedly with Vietnam, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries as part of what’s looking more and more like an American “Great Wall” around China as part of the so-called “pivot” toward Asia.
The future of America is Asia is as China’s partner, not China’s adversary.