I am very excited to attend his book launching party in DC on March 19. I was the first journalist who ever wrote about him and later pursuaded Newsweek to do the cover story who subsequently made an impact in his life.
In April 2012, blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest in a rural village and sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. The ruling Chinese Communist Party was furious, and demanded that Chen leave the embassy. When U.S. officials negotiated with Chen to find a way for him to leave, he asked for a guarantee that his family — who had been routinely harassed and beaten by plainclothes government thugs — would be safe.
In a copy of Chen’s unpublished memoir, The Barefoot Lawyer, obtained by Foreign Policy, Chen details the promises U.S. officials made to him — and then broke. According to Chen, Kurt Campbell, the then-assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and the highest-ranking United States diplomat directly involved in the affair, said that he and then-American Ambassador Gary Locke would personally reunite the dissident with his family.
“‘I swear on my mother’s name, on the name of my children, in the name of God, that Ambassador Locke and I will go to get your family,’” Campbell told Chen inside the embassy, according to the dissident’s account. Campbell then asked Chen to make a statement “that the American government has been extremely helpful and that you completely trust us.”
Campbell didn’t keep his promise to go to rural China and bring Chen’s family to Beijing. Instead, it was Chinese officials who did so, causing Chen to fear for their safety. The Americans, Chen writes, “relinquished control of the situation.” Furious, Chen instead made a different statement, and complained that U.S. officials abandoned him, exacerbating a diplomatic tiff between Washington and Beijing.
Chen, who first incited Chinese officials’ ire by defending the rights of people with disabilities, had long been critical of the State Department’s handling of his case. In The Barefoot Lawyer, set to be published March 10, Chen releases some damning new details about his saga, which unfolded just days before then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to arrive in Beijing for talks with the Chinese leadership.
In Hard Choices, Clinton’s June 2014 memoir of her time at the State Department, she devotes an entire chapter to her involvement in the Chen affair. Chen was “unpredictable and quixotic,” Clinton writes, but also “as formidable a negotiator as the Chinese leaders outside.”
Chen, however, barely mentions Clinton in his book. In detailing the pressure American officials put on him to reach a deal quickly, it’s Campbell who comes off especially poorly. He warns Chen, according to the book, that “if you don’t leave the embassy, the Chinese government will accuse you of treason.”
In an email, Campbell, who now runs the Asia Group, a consultancy, didn’t dispute the quotes, or the promise he made. “I respect Chen’s perspective and his many sacrifices,” he wrote. It was an “extraordinary experience,” Campbell added, and he was proud to have been part of it. (The State Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Chen didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
It was also an intense one, for Chen, Campbell, and everyone involved. “I’m so upset, I don’t know how else to help you,” Chen quotes Campbell as saying. “‘We’ve been up for days and nights, and in Washington hundreds of people have been working on this. We can’t keep talking about it!’” Chen writes that Campbell, exhausted by the pressure, “shed tears before storming out of the room.”
Chen also details for the first time his interaction with the Chinese side. Absurdly, the highest-ranking Chinese official whom Chen dealt with appears to be a man named Guo Shousong, who identified himself as the assistant head for citizen reception at the State Bureau for Letters and Visits — a toothless Chinese institution that claims to encourage citizens to petition grievances.
“Don’t think of me as a nobody just because my position is not that prestigious,” Guo pleads, according to the book. “I’ve actually been sent by high-level central authorities.”
Chen asks Guo about a rumor that “six buses of thugs” were driving up from Chen’s home province of Shandong to Beijing, with a mission to bring Chen back, dead or alive. In a nice bit of gallows humor, Guo cracks a joke. “‘Well, hopefully they won’t get in,’ he said, laughing stiffly.” (The State Bureau for Letters and Visits couldn’t be reached for comment.)
After intense negotiations with Beijing, Clinton and her team — including Locke, Campbell, and the State Department’s legal advisor Harold Koh, all four of whom have since left the State Department — worked out a solution: Chen would be allowed to accept a fellowship with New York University. In mid-May 2012 he flew triumphantly to New York.
In the years since his escape, Chen has lost much of his luster as a human rights icon. In June 2013, he claimed that because of “Chinese communist” pressure, NYU had forced him to leave. NYU denied this; the real reason may have been financial. Jerome Cohen, a NYU professor and confidant of Chen,told me at the time that Chen “shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds” him. I last spoke with Chen in December 2013, a few months after he accepted a three-year fellowship at the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank. If the State Department officials thought carefully reflected upon what happened in spring 2012, Chen told me, “they would possibly feel that they were again cheated by the Communist Party.”
There are other portions of Chen’s book that appear to reveal new details about the diplomatic firestorm ranging during his time at the embassy.
In April 2012, Chen released a video appeal to then-Premier Wen Jiabao, asking for justice for him and his family. Chen writes that he also recorded — but never released — a video thanking the actor and star of “Dark Knight” Christian Bale, who tried to visit Chen when he was under house arrest in December 2011.
“You’re not just a knight when you’re acting. You are in real life, too,” Chen had recorded.
Before Chinese officials let Chen’s wife leave Beijing, he writes, she waited in her family compound, as the thugs guarding her busied themselves measuring and photographing her house in preparation for an even stronger form of surveillance. She overhears a guard saying that the new measures “‘will be great—with an electric net, even wings won’t help them get away.’”
Not everyone in the State Department comes across poorly. The most sympathetic character from Chen’s escape is Robert Wang, the then-deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy, who tries to console Chen as the situation appears to be rapidly unraveling. “Don’t be disappointed,” Wang said, according to the book. “This is how it goes with politics.”