The Cable

Chen’s friend: U.S. conveyed Chinese threat against wife

Chen Guangcheng's friend Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid, told a congressional commission Thursday that Chen only agreed to leave the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after U.S. officials conveyed a threat from the Chinese government that Chen would never see his wife again if he didn't leave the embassy that day.

Fu has been in contact with Chen directly throughout the ordeal and told the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) today that he had spoken to Chen Wednesday night as Chen and his family remained in a Beijing hospital, unable to leave or receive visitors. U.S. officials have insisted that Chen left the embassy of his own volition after agreeing to the terms of a deal U.S. officials struck with the Chinese government.

But Fu said Chen's real motivation was fear.

"According to my conversations last night with Mr. Chen," Fu testified, "the U.S. officials relayed to Chen a message from the Chinese side that they would harm his wife. And it was in response to this threat that Chen reluctantly agreed to leave the embassy."

He continued: "Chen was talked to by a U.S. government official before he left the embassy and he was told it was a Chinese government message, that the Chinese government wanted to convey the message through the U.S. government official that if he did not leave the embassy on May 2, he will not be able to see his wife and children again."

"Chen said, after hearing that message from the Chinese government, conveyed by U.S. officials, his heart was heavy and he felt he had no other choice but to walk out of the U.S. embassy," said Fu.

U.S. officials deny that they conveyed any physical or legal threats to Chen. In a statement issued Wednesday and repeated Thursday by the White House, however, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland acknowledged, "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."

Chen may have interpreted those comments as an implicit threat, observers said.

According to Fu, after Chen arrived at the hospital, he heard from his wife that she was abused in recent days at their Shandong home. She was tied to a chair and beaten, Fu said. Upon hearing that, Chen no longer had faith in the Chinese government to honor any deal to keep his family safe and decided to plea for U.S. assistance in leaving China.

"The interrogator told her that if her husband did not walk out of the U.S. Embassy, they would kill her. It should be clear to anyone who uses logic that constitutes a threat," Fu said, adding that Chen has not asked for "amnesty" per se but wants to leave China.

"Secretary Clinton, at least deliver what you have promised and repeatedly said over the last two years: that you  want to see Chen and his family in freedom and safety," Fu said.

In an interview with CBS, U.S. Amb. to China Gary Locke said that the United States had worked hard to negotiate a package of concessions from the Chinese government, and that Chen was enthusiastic about the arrangement. Locke also said that Chen's wife and children were brought to Beijing at Chen's request.

"Why can't the Chinese just do something first as a sign of good faith? Why must I trust them to do various things after I leave the Embassy?" Chen told U.S. officials, according to Locke. "Why can't they bring the family from the village to the hospital first so that I can know that they're safe, so I can talk to them on the phone? And if, after that conversation, I'm satisfied, I will leave the embassy and rejoin them."

Locke said that Chen was never pressured to leave the embassy, never expressed a desire to leave China when at the embassy, and rejected other offers from the Chinese government before eventually agreeing to the final offer.

"We were able to get the Chinese government to offer an unprecedented package of care for him -- family reunification. He hadn't seen his son in over two years. They were going to give him a full scholarship at one of seven universities of his choosing with full housing and living expenses for him and his family, and they would conduct an investigation of the abuses that he had suffered," Locke said. "If he had stayed in the embassy, his family still would have been in the village where they have suffered abuse."

Nevertheless, Locke noted that Chen was obviously having a change of heart and said that U.S. officials were working Thursday to determine Chen's wishes and how they could assist him. Chen's wife came out of the hospital to meet with U.S. officials Thursday and officials have had two conversations with Chen over the phone, Locke said.

Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told The Cable that the U.S. government had no choice but to relay the Chinese government's implicit threat to Chen and allow Chen to use that information to make the best decision for him and his family.

"The State Department said there was a particular threat made that they duly informed him about. They did what they had to do in conveying that to Chen," he said. "It would have been wrong if it was the case that they pressed him on that basis in one direction or another, but I don't have any information that they did."

The CECC is chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), the congressman to whom Chen appealed directly for help Wednesday after saying he felt abandoned by the U.S. government. At today's hearing, Smith referred to Chen's comments in an interview with CNN from his hospital bed, during which he said that administration officials lobbied him repeatedly to leave the embassy, kept him from communicating with friends, and reneged on promises to stay with him at the hospital.

"I'm very disappointed in the U.S. government. I don't think U.S. officials protected human rights in this case," Chen said in the interview. (In a more recent interview with the network, Chen chalked some of his earlier comments up to a "misunderstanding.")

Smith said he intends to hold another hearing on the issue next week with U.S. officials.

"Chen's comments portray the U.S. as manipulating him, cutting him off from outside communication, and encouraging him to leave the embassy rather than seek asylum," said Smith. "He said he was denied requests to call friends. He said he felt the embassy officials had lied to him."

There are several questions left unanswered, Smith said, including: How will the U.S. enforce the agreement with the Chinese government on Chen? What happens if Chen or his family suffer retaliation? Where is Chen's nephew Chen Kegui? What happens now to He Peirong, the woman who drove Chen to the embassy?

Smith detailed Chen's fight against alleged abuses of China's family planning laws in Shandong and the abuses he and his wife have endured at the hands of Chinese officials, including beatings and various other forms of intimidation. CECC has been documenting these abuses in detail and held a hearing about Chen's case last November.

"Hu Jia, a human rights and environmental advocate, and Chen Guangcheng, a self-trained legal advocate who publicized population planning abuses, were released from prison this year only to face, along with their families, onerous conditions of detention and abuse with little or no basis in Chinese law," CECC's 2011 Annual Report stated. "In Chen's case, authorities kept him and his wife under extralegal house arrest and allegedly beat them after video footage of their conditions was smuggled out of the house and released on an overseas Web site."

MARK RALSTON/AFP/GettyImages

The Cable

The real fight for Chen Guangcheng begins now

Following six days of intense diplomacy, the United States and China struck a deal allowing blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng to leave the protection of the U.S. Embassy and start a new life with his family inside China. But the U.S. government and human rights groups are warning that getting the Chinese government to honor the agreement will be a difficult, months-long effort.

As Chen began his first night in a Beijing hospital, he was already expressing concerns that he might be abandoned by his friends in the U.S. government, who received him after a daring escape from house arrest in Shandong only days before. "Nobody from the embassy is here. I don't understand why. They promised to be here," Britain's Channel 4 quoted Chen as saying. Meanwhile, the State Department was in overdrive Wednesday communicating to anyone and everyone that U.S. officials had not told Chen his wife would be beaten to death if he didn't leave the embassy, as Chen told the Associated Press from his hospital bed.

Chen later implored U.S. President Barack Obama to secure his escape from China altogether. "I would like to say to President Obama -- please do everything you can to get our family out," he told CNN.

"The embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised to have people stay with me in the hospital, but this afternoon as soon as I checked into the hospital room, I noticed they were all gone," he said though a translator.

The episode highlighted the challenges of enforcing the terms of the deal struck with Chinese authorities. The agreement included a reunion between Chen and his family at a hospital where he could receive attention to an injured foot. It also stipulated that the Chinese government would treat Chen and his family humanely, that they would be relocated, and that Chen would be allowed to study at a university.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, who was deeply involved in the negotiations, told CNN Wednesday that the U.S. government alone could not be responsible for enforcing the deal and that the entire international community had to mobilize to ensure Chen's safe treatment.

"What we have been able to do is provide the base, but it will be important for the U.S. government, for non-profits, for his many friends, admirers, and supporters to create a support network for him that protects him, that supports him, that encourages him in the way ahead," Campbell said.

That call for outside help was echoed in a Wednesday morning conference call with NGO leaders in Washington. Administration officials on the call included State Department Counselor Harold Koh and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner from Beijing, with NSC Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power joining from Washington.

Multiple NGO leaders on the call told The Cable that the administration officials urged the human rights community to stay active on the Chen case but didn't offer any specifics as to what they were planning to do about it going forward.

"We heard a broad call to arms that we all monitor what happens to Chen and his family in the days weeks and months to come. There weren't any specifics offered up," Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, told The Cable. "They said repeatedly that they are on it, they are trying to stay in constant contact with him and others, which is straightforward and accurate. From where we stand, the question is how vigilant everyone remains in the months ahead."

Richardson offered several specific recommendations. The State Department could assign more manpower to the case and decide what reciprocal actions might be taken if the Chinese government reneged on its promise to treat Chen and his family fairly, she said.

But the NGO community writ large has little faith that China will live up to its side of the bargain without steady and firm pressure.

"The most important thing is that everyone should acknowledge this is not over. Chen has chosen to stay in China based on commitments made by the Chinese government that if history is any judge are unlikely to be fulfilled over the long term," said Tom Malinowski, HRW's Washington director. "The U.S. government needs to engage on this as intensively after these high level meetings this week, to stay in touch with Chen's associates and be ready to press hard publicly and privately if and when the China goes back on these commitments."

The Chen case is an opportunity for the United States to reposition itself on the issue of human rights in a way that aligns American foreign policy with the Chinese people, he added.

"Chen is more than a dissident; he's a folk hero," Malinowski said. "This is someone who the Chinese people are rooting for. The fact that the only power in Beijing willing to protect him was the U.S. gives the U.S. government the moral high ground in this drama in the broader Chinese public."

That theme was echoed in a statement by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), one of the few Republican leaders to weigh in on the Chen case Wednesday.

"The Obama administration should not let this moment pass. The Chinese government should be put on notice this case will have an impact on future relations between our two nations. We have leverage to use, but we need the will to do so," Graham said. "The case of Mr. Chen is fast becoming a defining moment in U.S.-China relations."

The Mitt Romney campaign was silent Wednesday on the issue.

Frank Jannuzi, the Washington director of Amnesty International, told The Cable that the timing of the incident, just before 200 U.S. officials are set to begin two days of talks in Beijing, was important because it showed that human rights concerns can't be separated from the broader U.S.-China relationship.

He also noted that U.S. officials on Wednesday's conference call staunchly defended their handling of the case and promised to stay engaged.

"The message was consistent, that at no time did Chen ask for asylum, that the U.S. government did not pressure him to make one choice or another, and that the U.S. government will be following his case for days months and years to come," Jannuzi said.  "We'll see what the morning brings in Beijing."