Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng entered the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last week in such poor medical condition that U.S. officials suspected he might have advanced colon cancer, pushing them to speed up his exit from the embassy and into a local hospital, a senior administration official told The Cable.
Following Chen's harrowing escape from house arrest and what U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke called a "Mission: Impossible"-style rescue by to get him into the U.S. Embassy, U.S. officials found Chen to be in much worse health that has previously been disclosed, according to the official, who had first-hand knowledge of the episode. Chen's severe medical condition was a factor in the embassy's desire to get him to the local hospital as quickly as possible and was also a reason U.S. officials left Chen alone during a portion of his hospital stay, because he had to undergo extensive testing to determine whether or not he had a fatal disease.
"When Chen entered the embassy and was examined by our doctor, he was found to be bleeding profusely from his rectum," the official said, adding that the American doctor on site concluded that Chen either had a severe case of gastroenteritis or an advanced case of untreated colon cancer. "This gave us a lot of anxiety."
The Chinese were not about to allow any medical equipment to come into the embassy, however, so the need to get Chen to the nearest hospital became a priority throughout the negotiations that eventually saw him walk out of the U.S. Embassy and arrive at a local hospital, where he remains.
The Washington Post reported Sunday that Chen does in fact have a case of gastroenteritis, but U.S officials didn't know that at the time Chen was inside the embassy, the official said. It was clear, however, that his foot was badly damaged, and that Chen had entered the embassy in a state of disorientation, fatigue, and a great deal of pain. The embassy wasn't properly equipped to diagnose his internal ailment or treat his foot properly, the official said.
The U.S. official said that after the Chinese government agreed to a set of understandings that led Chen to walk out of the U.S. Embassy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was prepared to make a public statement detailing all of those understandings, to include the Chinese government's promises to allow Chen to study law and to investigate local officials' treatment of him and his family.
"We were going to use her high-level statement as a way to lock in [the understandings]. That was the game plan," the official said.
But when Chen arrived at the hospital, he had the chance to speak with several activists who urged him to scuttle the deal and leave China for his own safety. Chen's wife also gave him new details of the harassment she had endured since his escape, prompting Chen to change his mind and decide he had to get out of the country.
"We didn't think that he would rethink it all and request to leave China," the official said. "Once that happened, the Chinese went ballistic and we had to start all over again."
The U.S. officials then re-entered intense negotiations with the Chinese government to strike a new set of understandings, under which Chen would be allowed to apply for a visa to study in the United States with his immediate family in tow.
The official's account matches that of Jerome Cohen, Chen's legal mentor and confidant, who explained in detail last week Chen's account of his change of heart.
At the beginning of his hospital stay, Chen's statements to the media expressing dismay that U.S. officials had left him alone in his hospital created the impression that the U.S. officials had been cut off from access to Chen. The official said that in fact there was more direct contact with Chen than has been publicly disclosed but there were some miscommunications that resulted in confusion over the issue.
"For example, on Thursday [May 3] it was always planned that he would have a full day of medical tests," the official said, explaining why U.S. officials had less concern about not being in direct contact with Chen on that day.
Throughout the ordeal, the U.S. officials working on the case believed they were pushing the Chinese government as hard as they could to grant concessions to Chen. They argue that the Chinese government went beyond what it had done in previous such cases, by agreeing to the first and then the second set of understandings about how Chen was to be treated.
Outside commentators have speculated that the impending high-level dialogue involving 200 U.S officials who were in Beijing, called the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, put the United States at a negotiating disadvantage. But the official said the S&ED's existence actually put the Chinese government under more pressure to make a deal that it knew would be supported by the endorsement of senior American officials during a time of intense focus on the U.S.-China relationship.
There were also signs of an internal struggle within the Chinese system between the Foreign Ministry and the organs of state security over how to deal with the Chen case, the official said. But the understandings between the United States and China over Chen were endorsed at the highest levels of the Chinese government at every juncture, the official insisted.
"It's in our interest that this be handled by the Foreign Ministry, because then within the Chinese system it's treated as an issue of foreign policy and not as an issue of internal security," the official explained.
The official said he expects the process of Chen applying for permission to visit the United States to move quickly and that his application will be approved by the Chinese government. The U.S. government is already working with private foundations to secure the financial support Chen and his family will need to live in the United States.
"We think the first set of understandings would have held and we think the second set of understandings will hold as well," the official said.
On Sunday's Meet the Press, Vice President Joe Biden went even further.
"The Chinese have told us that if he files the papers to be able to go abroad, that would be grand. And we're prepared to give a visa right away," Biden said. "He's going to be able to take his family. We expect the Chinese to stick to that commitment."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.