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Chinese Dissident Chen Guangcheng’s Fate Remains Uncertain

May 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
"The government officials came into my home, wanted to beat my family to death," Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng said Thursday, indicating he now wants to leave China. Ray Suarez discussed the fast-moving saga of the blind activist with the AP's Charles Hutzler, the ChinaAid Association's Bob Fu and professor Susan Shirk.

JEFFREY BROWN: Earlier this afternoon, late at night in China, I spoke with Associated Press Beijing bureau chief Charles Hutzler.

Charles Hutzler, thanks for joining us.

So, is the situation any clearer tonight, at least as far as Mr. Chen’s desire to leave China, including expressing a desire to leave on Hillary Clinton’s plane?

CHARLES HUTZLER, Associated Press: Well, pretty much over the last 24 hours, he has been in touch with friends and foreign media, intermittently turning a cell phone on that was given to him, and he’s said repeatedly that he wants to leave. He feels very cut off in the hospital, and he feels his family’s life is in danger.

Now, it seemed to have taken the State Department quite some time to get that message, but this evening, they said that they, indeed, had confirmed his desire to leave and they were seeking additional information from him as to how to go forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what is his status now? He’s not simply a patient in a hospital, presumably. Is he a prisoner? Is that clear at all?

CHARLES HUTZLER: It’s not terribly clear.

He is confined to the hospital. He seems to be unable to leave. The State Department said that officials had spoken with him by phone twice today. His wife and his two children who joined him upon his release in the hospital yesterday, his wife has been able to come out and meet with U.S. officials to talk about the family’s situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just to be clear, have U.S. officials said one way or another if they support his idea of leaving the country?

CHARLES HUTZLER: They have not said that clearly. They have said that they understand it’s his intention to leave with his family and they’re seeking more information about where to go from here.

They have also said that they have had some contact with Chinese officials over the situation, but no elaboration on the content of those talks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that’s what I want to ask you next, because you have got these formal meetings on the one hand, and then you have all of this happening behind the scenes. So it’s not clear how much negotiating is going on at this point between the U.S. and Chinese officials?

CHARLES HUTZLER: Well, yes, his change of mind really seemed to throw a spanner in the works.

Before an agreement was reached on his leaving the embassy, we were being told by activists who were in touch with — with some of the negotiators that a deal had to be made before these high-level strategic and economic talks began, or there just wasn’t going to be enough time to deal with it until afterwards.

Of course, their plan to kind of quietly reach a solution has now come undone, and it really is not clear how much energy is being expended — perhaps a lot — we just don’t know — on trying to resolve the situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Charles Hutzler of the AP, thanks for joining us.


JEFFREY BROWN: And two added perspectives now on the story creating a clamor in Beijing and Washington.

Bob Fu, whom we saw at that congressional hearing, is president of the ChinaAid Association, a Christian human rights organization. He has worked with Chen to promote religious freedom and the rule of law in China. Susan Shirk was deputy assistant secretary of state dealing with China issues during the Clinton administration. She is now a professor at the University of California at San Diego.

Bob Fu, you have known Mr. Chen a long time. You talked to him today. How did he sound today? Did he sound as committed as it sounds that he wants to leave?

BOB FU, ChinaAid: He’s very clear to me last night when I had phone call and today at the congressional hearing. He and his family does not feel safe in China. They want to leave as soon as possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there was the suggestion in that clip that he was suggesting there are wider dangers to his family, to neighbors, to other people?

BOB FU: That’s right. He’s concerned his family members are being arrested or really threatened. So that’s his concern.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it your sense that he had a change of heart? There still is confusion about what he told U.S. officials and then what he later said when he left the embassy.

BOB FU: Apparently, he said he wasn’t getting the full picture for the threat, the length of threat his family member had received before he walked out of the U.S. Embassy.

So he was — he felt some sort of threat before he walked out of the embassy already when the message came to him that basically said, if you don’t walk today, walk out today, then your family will be in danger. Your wife and your children will not be able to see you anymore.

So he walked out of that, of course, with some of the assurance by the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. officials that his freedom will be protected. And at the end of the day, even the first day, the deal was broken, and, yes, as we see today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Susan Shirk, of course, this has led to some second-guessing about how this was handled by the U.S. delegation there.

And we heard that it sounds as though they were clearly taken by surprise. What’s your take on that now?

SUSAN SHIRK, director, Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, University of California: Well, if you look at the interviews that Ambassador Locke has given and other senior officials who were trying to achieve the result that Chen Guangcheng had requested, which is to live as a free citizen in Chinese society, go to law school, have his family with him, they really left it up to him.

They offered time alternative of staying in the embassy for a period of time. And, in fact, on Monday evening, that’s where things were. He — if you talked — he talked with Professor Jerome Cohen, professor at NYU Law School, who was giving him independent advice as a highly respected China expert and human rights lawyer. And as of Monday night, it looked like he was going to stay in the embassy and the embassy was making preparations to house him for some period of time.

On Tuesday, his thinking changed. And he asked that his family be brought to Beijing by the Chinese government as a sign of goodwill and credible commitment. And the Chinese government did that. And once he spoke with his wife several times, once she had gotten to the hospital, he decided to leave.

But, of course, once he reentered Chinese society, I think his feelings of vulnerability very much came to the surface, and he became uncertain about the risks he now faces.


Well, Bob Fu, you have raised some questions I think about how the U.S. handled this, or some concerns. But what is your thinking now? And what kind of negotiations — what should happen now?

BOB FU: I think Secretary Clinton should make an appointment with the Chinese and allow her at least to meet with Mr. Chen and his wife in a safe environment to listen to what do they really want to do, and I think to reassess the agreement.

And, honestly, he already made it very clear to the whole world and even today to Secretary Clinton that he wants help, and he feels in danger. He wants his family to come to the U.S.

JEFFREY BROWN: But do you see the U.S. as having the leverage to do that, given the Chinese, no doubt, feel very aggrieved at this point? We have seen it.

BOB FU: Yes, I think, technically, you know, Mr. Chen and his family, they are not criminals, and they are supposed to be free citizens.

And normal Chinese citizens are guaranteed with constitutional rights. They should be allowed to at least get a passport and to apply a visa. I think if the two governments reach that agreement, just treat him as he is, I think that’s not a big deal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Susan Shirk, do you see this the U.S. as having leverage here? What should happen?

SUSAN SHIRK: Well, in the last couple of hours, Mr. Chen has indicated that he would like to remain in China as a free citizen, but he would like to leave for a period of time, say, as a visiting scholar or international student at an American university.

This might be a very good solution, which would be a lot easier for the Chinese government to accept than a case of political asylum.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will leave it there for now.

Susan Shirk and Bob Fu, thank you both very much.

BOB FU: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And one further note: We have posted online all of Mr. Chen’s cell phone conversation with members of Congress this afternoon. You can find the video on our home page.