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After Chen Changed Mind, China Was ‘Beyond Furious’ Over Renegotiating With U.S.

May 9, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ray Suarez speaks with Steven Lee Myers, diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times, about the latest developments in the saga of blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng and how his situation rankled American and Chinese officials during high-level diplomatic meetings.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, the story behind the story, as the U.S. and China scrambled last week over the fate of a Chinese activist.

Ray Suarez has our look.

RAY SUAREZ: It took a week of intense high-level negotiations to secure the apparent release of activist Chen Guangcheng.

For more on how all this came about, we turn to Steven Lee Myers, diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times.

And, Steven, there were days of tense standoff, then an announcement that it was all over. What have you found out since the apparent settlement was going on behind the scenes?

STEVEN LEE MYERS, The New York Times: Well, in fact, you had two agreements.

The first one fell apart almost immediately after it was announced. The original deal was that he would stay, Chen would stay inside China and study at the university, one of seven universities. As soon as he left the Embassy and went to the hospital, he began to speak to his wife, to his lawyer, other advocates, began to have second thoughts.

And that deal then seemed to fall apart when he decided he wanted to be in the United States after all. He specifically asked for asylum in the United States. That then set in motion another two days of intense round-the-clock negotiations to try to figure out what to do.

RAY SUAREZ: From your story, it sounds like the Chinese were putting a lot of heat on the Americans, but really it was Chen who was driving events, wasn’t it?

STEVEN LEE MYERS: Well, both are true.

The Chinese were not pleased at all about this situation. In fact, one of the things that was extraordinary about the diplomacy last week is that the Chinese don’t believe that they have to negotiate anything with the Americans when it comes to one of its own citizens.

The art of this — of these negotiations that took place were essentially to try to negotiate agreement without acknowledging that they were negotiating anything. They came to a very carefully crafted understanding, as diplomats like to put it. But then Chen changed his mind.

And that put the administration on a terrible spot, because they couldn’t now not honor Chen’s request to come to the United States. And that set in motion another round of talks. The Chinese were furious, because they thought they had an agreement, and Chen changed his mind, and then the U.S. had to go back and say, let’s try to do this again.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, of course, this all happened under the umbrella of an existing high-level trip to China by a senior American delegation. Were they talking about other things and almost politely avoiding the Chen issue, until finally Secretary Clinton had to bring it up?

STEVEN LEE MYERS: These talks, as you said, involved everything but human rights, and certainly not Chen’s case.

And so the first couple of days that Secretary Clinton was in Beijing, she was talking about a host of other issues: trade issues, economic issues, currency issues, global issues like Iran’s nuclear program and North Korea’s program and what’s happening in Syria. All through these meetings, while the negotiators were very quietly behind the scenes trying to resolve this crisis, she went about the business of this meeting, which was important, I think, to both countries.

It was only after Chen changed his mind and the U.S. had to go back and say, we had one agreement, now we need a second agreement, that she was — she was able to intervene. She really had to intervene at that point. And I think partly because of the way that she had had handled the meetings thus far, the Chinese were willing to, you know, once again return and try to sort it out.

RAY SUAREZ: But what was the Chinese reaction to Hillary Clinton bringing up the Chen matter in the context of these talks?

STEVEN LEE MYERS: I was told that they were furious, beyond furious. They were — they, again, thought they had quietly resolved something, and now the Americans were coming back and asking them to do it all over again.

RAY SUAREZ: Officially, according to all sides, this thing has been wrapped up. But has it really? Is it clear that there’s been a final settlement, a durable settlement?

STEVEN LEE MYERS: Well, I think, again, as you said, both sides seem to want to resolve this in a quiet way. It ended up not being very quiet in the end.

But the — he has been promised by the Chinese that he would be granted a visa to travel abroad and study at NYU in New York. The Americans say they’ve been able to see him, he’s being treated. And Secretary Clinton said yesterday that she had high hopes that soon this would be resolved and he would be able to leave with his family.

RAY SUAREZ: At this point in the game, is it clear how long it will be ‘til Chen is able to leave China?

STEVEN LEE MYERS: It’s not known publicly, but I have been told that it could be a matter of days before he’s, one, treated. He is quite ill, more ill than was first thought, not just the foot that he broke when he escaped, but also other medical issues.

So I think that it’s going to be a matter of some days yet.

RAY SUAREZ: Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times, thanks for joining us.

STEVEN LEE MYERS: Thank you.