Episode 4: Coming To America | Crooked Media
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January 27, 2024
Dissident At The Doorstep
Episode 4: Coming To America

In This Episode

Guangcheng escapes house arrest, but he’s not free yet. Without a real plan or a place to hide, he turns to the US embassy in Beijing. His moves set in motion a diplomatic maelstrom, where top officials from the two most powerful countries in the world negotiate over his fate – and their own.

 

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

Yangyang Cheng: Where in China is it safe for a dissident on the run? Guangcheng had managed to slip past the guards, and out of his house he scaled a wall and badly injured his foot. He was in desperate need of a place to hide. After escaping Dongshigu, he made it to the home of a sympathetic family in a nearby village, and from there to another safe house 100km away. But time was running out. He needed a plan. 

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] In fact, when I fled to my neighbor’s house in the West Village, I was thinking about how to get news from the outside world, because I didn’t have a cell phone at the time, and he didn’t have a cell phone, a telephone, or a radio. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Guangcheng told us that a neighbor helped him find a used radio and a cell phone, so he could contact people and keep ahead of the news. And that’s how he got the idea for his next move. 

 

Richard Yeh: That night, when I was listening to the shortwave radio, I heard from a foreign station that Wang Lijun had fled to the US consulate in Chengdu. 

 

Colin Jones: Wang Lijun was the deputy mayor and police chief of Chongqing, a city in southwestern China. One day, he showed up at a nearby US consulate with a story about a murder. The story he told was salacious, with all the trappings of a soap opera plot, and in a matter of days, it spiraled into a massive diplomatic crisis. According to Wang, one of the most powerful figures in the Chinese Communist Party have been involved in the killing of a British citizen. In exchange for this information. Wang had asked the US government for amnesty, but ultimately the Americans decided to hand it back over to Chinese authorities. One reason the US government did this is that it is not in the practice of offering asylum through its diplomatic missions. It almost never does so. The other reason Wang was pretty much a thug himself. And at the end of it all, he and the man he informed on both wound up in prison. Wang’s story was all over the news the night Guangcheng turned on his radio. A journalist was relating some version of these events. And although things clearly hadn’t worked out well for Wang, Guangcheng says that Wang’s story gave him an idea he too, could try asking the Americans for sanctuary. Maybe he would have better luck. After all, Guangcheng was a legal activist, not a corrupt official. 

 

Richard Yeh: I thought if I made it to Beijing, I went to the U.S. embassy as an emergency shelter would be the best plan. This was the first time I thought about going to the embassy. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Beijing was over 500km away. A fellow activist drove Guangcheng to the capital. From there, the activist reached out to the human rights officer at the U.S. embassy and asked for sanctuary. Embassy officials agreed to send a car to meet them near the Olympic Stadium in the north of the city. Guangcheng was already worried that the authorities were on his trail. Back in Chongqing, his wife Weijing had stuffed some pillows beneath blankets and tucked the fabric into the shape of a person. The guards might think for a moment that Guangcheng was still in bed, but the ruse would not hold up for long. Guangcheng and his fellow activists drove around the capital for hours as they waited for a signal from the U.S. embassy. According to Guangcheng, this was the most anxious time during his entire escape. Finally, they got word that an embassy car would meet them at 1:30 p.m. When the car showed up. They saw it was being followed by several more cars from Chinese state security. After a short chase and in the middle of Beijing streets, where a U-turn and a dead end provided an opportunity, Guangcheng was quickly handed off from one car to another. He landed in the backseat between two U.S. embassy officials.

 

Richard Yeh: I felt the car suddenly speeding up to probably over 100km per hour. And even though the embassy car had diplomatic immunity, I was still a bit worried about driving so fast. Because sometimes when he was dodging traffic, it felt a bit unsafe [?] said to the driver, you don’t have to rush like this just drive normally, you know, don’t give him an excuse to stop you. The driver said he wanted to shake off the tailing car, but the consul said there was no need. So just like that, we drove back to the embassy. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Guangcheng told us where he escaped from house arrest. He had not planned out the next steps by getting into that embassy car. He set in motion a process that will see top officials from the two most powerful countries negotiating over his fate. I’m Yangyang Cheng. 

 

Colin Jones: And I’m Colin Jones, and this is episode four of Dissident at the Doorstep. [music play] As Guangcheng circled around Beijing’s outskirts in an embassy car. What he didn’t know was that back in the states, US officials were locked in a debate over whether or not he should actually be let inside the embassy. 

 

Danny Russel: I think my introduction to Chen Guangcheng was late at night, maybe the middle of the night. 

 

Colin Jones: In 2012, Danny Russel was special assistant to President Obama. He was also the senior director for Asia affairs on the National Security Council. Those jobs gave him a pretty hefty clearance, and the white House had installed a secure line inside Danny’s apartment in the early hours of the morning on April 26th. That phone started ringing. 

 

Danny Russel: I got word that. Chinese dissident, the so-called barefoot lawyer was riding around Beijing in a car with the human rights officer from the embassy, and that they thought that the Chinese authorities were closing in on them. And it might just be a matter of time before they were intercepted or apprehended, then commenced a conference call, secure conference call with my senior colleagues to discuss what to do. 

 

Colin Jones: Danny says the people on the call included then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, her deputy chief of staff, Jake Sullivan, and the assistant secretary of State, Kurt Campbell. 

 

Danny Russel: The conundrum that we were faced with. Put pretty simply, was two irreconcilable imperatives. One is that the United States can’t turn a blind eye to the, direct threat to a courageous, champion of liberty, a dissenter, someone who is a person in the very spirit of American liberty and and freedom of free speech, etc.. And this collided head on with, you know, competing set of imperatives. Put very simply, it’s not our flipping country. 

 

Colin Jones: Danny was pretty frank with us about what side of the issue he came down on. 

 

Danny Russel: I, for one, had grave reservations about bringing Guangcheng into the US embassy. That’s not what we do. And that’s not what embassies are. Are we sending a signal that the US is the human rights taxi? And all you need to do is to sort of ring the human rights officer, and you can get a get out of jail free card. 

 

Colin Jones: As Danny saw it, America’s human rights work in China was important, but the U.S. shouldn’t place itself in a position in which it needed to make case by case decisions about which Chinese citizens to protect. It shouldn’t be cavalier about the legal issues involved, either. The Wang Lijun case had been a diplomatic mess. Now, just a few months later, an embassy car had plucked a Chinese citizen off the streets of Beijing, where the U.S. had no jurisdiction at all, according to Danny. His skepticism was shared by the National Security Council in general that included President Obama, to whom Danny and the NSC reported directly. Hillary Clinton in the State Department took a different position. They wanted to let Guangcheng in. That raised the question of whether it was legal to do so. We made interview requests to a number of people from state Hillary, Kurt Campbell and chief legal adviser Harold Koh. They all declined to go on record. But Harold Koh has given a series of public lectures about these events, including one at NYU in 2014. 

 

Harold Koh: Well, let me say first what a joy it is to be at NYU Law School. 

 

Colin Jones: In these lectures, Harold lays out what the State Department wanted to do and the legal justification he crafted for doing it. 

 

Harold Koh: We’re respecting the law and our values doesn’t make us weaker it makes us safer and stronger. 

 

Colin Jones: You might not know Harold’s name offhand, but he was all over the place during Obama’s first term in office. Harold famously argued that the use of drones for targeted killings was legal under international law. And if you’ve ever seen that sunglasses blackberry photo of Hillary, Koh is the blurry face right behind her. But he was also kind of a fix it guy when it came to diplomatically sensitive events in foreign countries. In fact, he had just finished working on the Wang Lijun case. 

 

Harold Koh: I became known in the State Department as the exfil guy, after the movie Argo, getting people out of embassies. 

 

Colin Jones: We’ve heard Harold make this joke multiple times in multiple settings. Argo really seems to have left an impression on him. 

 

Harold Koh: The hilarious part was, I ended up watching this movie finally, and it just seemed like another day at the office. [laughs]

 

Colin Jones: Anyway, it was as a fix it guy that Harold was looped in when the State Department wanted to bring Guangcheng into the embassy. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: In her 2014 memoir Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton devoted an entire chapter to the Chen Guangcheng saga. In it, she states, it was clear from the beginning the letting Guangcheng into the embassy was the right call. According to Hillary, American values was at stake. Quote, “If we didn’t help Chen, it would undermine our position everywhere.” This is a lofty statement. During a talk at NYU, Professor Harold Koh echoed the same sentiment. 

 

Harold Koh: Secretary Clinton’s directive to us was very simple. His wishes, our values. That was what I was told from day one. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Now he had to come up with a legal argument. There were two big questions he had to answer. Number one. 

 

Harold Koh: Can we legally allow him to come in? Number two, we know there are cases where this has happened before, but some of those people never left. And the question is, if we allow him in, do we have to allow every other Chinese dissident to come in, which is a lot of dissidents? I mean, what kind of principle can we establish that allows us to act here but doesn’t paralyze us for the future? 

 

Yangyang Cheng: It was important for Harold Koh that the US embassy in China had done something similar before, but only once. And he found that in the case of Fang Lizhi. Fang was a world renowned astrophysicist and outspoken advocate for democracy and human rights. Chinese officials branded him the biggest blackhand behind the student protests at Tiananmen. On June 5th, 1989, a day after tanks had rolled into Beijing. Fang sought refuge at the US embassy. He and his family stayed there for 13 months, until the Chinese government granted them permission to leave the country, never to return. Fang spent most of his career in China at my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Science and Technology of China, in the mid 1980s. He served as the university’s executive vice president. When I enrolled at the same campus years later, his name remained a source of forbidden pride. Many a night, my dorm mates and I would speak of Fang and his courage. But none of us dared to mention him by name. Instead, we refer to him as lao fu xiao zhang, old vice president. Thanks to Fang and his enduring legacy. My teenage self-belief fervently in what Hillary Clinton said about American values and what the US embassy stood for. 

 

Colin Jones: Fang’s case was of particular interest to Harold Koh because they had gone out into Beijing and picked Fang up. 

 

Harold Koh: So on number question number two, there was a precedent. You can go get somebody. You don’t have to wait from the chair of the embassy. I didn’t know this. 

 

Colin Jones: In Guangcheng’s case. There was even more justification. He had injured his foot. 

 

Harold Koh: And I said to the guys in the consulate. How about this? We’re not talking about Chen’s right to come in. We’re talking about the United States right to admit him temporarily for medical treatment to our embassy because of his physical condition. After all, he was not allowed to seek medical attention the last time he was in a prison. And now he has a broken foot. And if, in fact, somebody had a similar condition and was lying on the ground outside the Chinese embassy in Washington, and they took him in for short term medical care, we would not say that’s illegal. 

 

Colin Jones: Harold’s argument had some major advantages. It gave the US legal cover for a decision the State Department had, for all intents and purposes, already made. It also meant U.S. officials could bring Guangcheng into the embassy without commenting on China’s human rights record or its treatment of Guangcheng. But it was not the bold public defense of American values that Hillary talked about in her memoir. Harold’s lecture describes all this as a process of careful deliberation. But that’s not how Danny experienced it from his perspective. The embassy had basically gone rogue in its decision to pick up Guangcheng. By the time he was looped in, there wasn’t any room to turn back. 

 

Danny Russel: I doubt that a considered process would have come to the conclusion that jumping into a car in Beijing at night and finally, you know, driving into the embassy clandestinely on presenting the Chinese government with this fait accompli on behalf of a single Chinese citizen was the brilliant solution that we were all looking for. But that’s where we were. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: At the gates of the US embassy, right before the car carrying Guangcheng entered U.S. jurisdiction, it had passed by a pair of Chinese guards stationed on the street. 

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] When we got to the entrance of the embassy, they told me it’s better if I lowered my head. I said, what’s the matter? I’ve gone inside the embassy car, why should I lower my head? But at the time, I still lower in my head. Symbolically. And then we drove inside the embassy. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: For the first time in years, Chinese authorities could not touch him. Guangcheng told me that he attributed his success that day to yin cha yang cuo, which basically means an error in the balance of yin and yang. A glitch in the order of the universe. But getting into the embassy was one thing. Getting out was quite another. That’s after the break. Behind the guarded gates of the U.S. embassy. Guangcheng was given the room to resting and received care for his foot injury. An X-ray revealed he had broken several bones. The staff did their best to make him comfortable. One of them even offered to bring home his laundry so Guangcheng could have fresh clothes. Guangcheng and the U.S. government had about a day of quiet. And then the press started figuring things out. 

 

[news clip]: Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng is said to be seeking refuge at the US embassy in Beijing. After he disappeared from his home on Sunday. / Now, news of his escape has brought the world’s attention to his plight. And with that attention— /Now he’s sought refuge from the United States. Of course we have to protect him. 

 

[clip of President Barack Obama]: Obviously, I’m aware of the press reports on the situation in China. But I’m not going to make a statement on the issue. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: By then, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell had flown in from the U.S. to manage the situation. He was joined by Harold Koh and the U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke. 

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] We had a meeting on Sunday. I think it was the 28th at noon in the garden of the embassy. I hadn’t seen the sun for a very long time. So I came out that day and sat down and talked to them. I felt nostalgic under the sun. At the time. The big boss was Campbell. The ambassador and Mr. Koh were just helping out. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Everyone was relieved that Guangcheng had made it to safety. Guangcheng teased Counselor Koh a bit.  

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] And then I made a joke and said, I can now authorize you to negotiate with the CCP on my behalf. 

 

Colin Jones: Those negotiations, of course, were the looming issue. Guangcheng had landed on a small island of American soil, but the embassy was still surrounded by Chinese jurisdiction. Without some kind of deal, Guangcheng would be arrested the second he stepped foot outside the gates. Reaching a deal with China was important for the American side, too. Within a matter of days, the US and China were supposed to begin a major round of bilateral negotiations on trade and security. These talks were a big deal. Danny put it this way. 

 

Danny Russel: We had Hillary Clinton, we had Tim Geithner. And this was the culmination of arguably, you know, a year’s worth of policy work within the US government among multiple agencies and negotiations on a variety of topics with the Chinese. 

 

Colin Jones: Hillary was already scheduled to arrive in Beijing for these talks. That put some real pressure on the negotiators. 

 

Danny Russel: I don’t remember any suggestion that the Chinese were going to slam the door shut, but nobody needs to be instructed to do their best to try to make a problem go away, or at least ameliorate it before a big event. 

 

Colin Jones: So as the negotiations over Guangcheng’s fate began. The Americans were eager to resolve the issue as expediently as possible. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: As always, Guangcheng had his own ideas. In the days after escape, and before he made it to the embassy, he had recorded a 15 minute video addressed directly to the Chinese premier. [clip of Chen Guangcheng] Dear Premiuer Wen, with great difficulty, I have escaped on April 27th. As the first reports of Guangcheng having entered the US embassy were being published. This video was posted online by fellow activists. In it, Guangcheng made a series of demands. [clip of Chen Guangcheng] Guangcheng asked that his family be protected, and he wanted justice that those who had tormented him be punished according to the law. When I ask Guangcheng what he wanted when he first set foot in the U.S. embassy, he echoed the same sentiments as he had expressed in this video. He told me he wasn’t trying to leave China, but that he had hoped in the safety of the embassy, he could speak out freely about the persecution he faced. Ideally, the Americans could pressure Beijing to conduct a thorough investigation of his mistreatment in Shandong.

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] Let’s investigate together whether what I said happened or not. Can we asked the United Nations to get involved or the Human Rights Council? 

 

Yangyang Cheng: But why would or should the U.S. government help a foreigner like him in his own country? I pressed him and he said, this. 

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] The United States has always been a beacon of democracy, freedom and human rights. This is a universally accepted fact, whether you admitted or not. Right. So in this case, the more resources a person, an organization or a country has, the more social responsibilities it has to take on. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: It might sound naive, even self-aggrandizing, for Guangcheng to think that his case would warrant a UN investigation. Yet as I listened to him recount his thinking at the time. I cannot help but respect his stubbornness. I’m reminded of an old Chinese saying, bu jiu yi ren he yi jiu tian xia. How can you save the world if you cannot save even one individual? By pressing his case and making it a priority for the most powerful government on Earth, Guangcheng was effectively calling the Americans on their bluff. 

 

Colin Jones: What Guangcheng wanted was accountability. He wanted someone to go to Dongshigu to see the evidence of the nightmare he and his family had been made to live through. And for those who did that to him to be punished. These were clear demands. But they didn’t really fit within the scope of possibility as far as the Americans were concerned. The question they wanted answered was, now that you’ve made it inside the embassy. Where do you want to go next? And to this, Guangcheng really didn’t have a clear answer. His equivocation seemed to have frustrated the American side. Here’s Harold Koh during his talk at NYU. 

 

Harold Koh: He is extremely nervous. And the way that we communicated with him was to hold his hand and talk to him. And Gary and I both explained how we were Asian Americans, how our parents came to America, why he should trust us. And we spent about a day simply gaining trust. At that point I said, Mr. Chen, where would you like to go? And he said, I want to stay in China and continue my work. And then he said, I wouldn’t mind going to America. And I said, have you ever been? And he said, NYU. Jerry Cohen. 

 

Colin Jones: There is a lot going on here. Clearly, by Harold’s account, this is the first inkling of a deal that would bring Guangcheng to the US. But of course, Harold also brought up his Asian-American identity as a point of connection between himself and Guangcheng. A reason Harold says that he merited Guangcheng’s trust. And right after saying that, Harold slipped into a stereotypical accent to represent Guangcheng speech. You could interpret all this in a number of ways. I guess for me, I don’t see how you can caricature someone’s speech like that and still take them seriously. Much of what happened next played out through personal connections. Harold had previously been the Dean of Yale Law School, and he was friends with the president of NYU, a man named John Sexton. Harold also knew that NYU was about to open a new campus in Shanghai, and so he called Sexton and asked if they might admit Guangcheng in the fall. That way, Guangcheng could stay in China. 

 

Harold Koh: And he said I would do it for our country, but I’d also do it because Hillary and you are asking me. And I said, John, you’re a great friend. Can you write me a letter to that effect in the next two minutes? [laughter]

 

Yangyang Cheng: The US side was just about to meet with their Chinese counterparts, and they wanted the deal in hand at the meeting. From the Americans perspective, the whole thing was working out almost ideally, the process of being swift and for the most part, smooth. Guangcheng will be taken care of with housing and other support from NYU Shanghai. Moreover, NYU had already negotiated a deal with the Chinese government over the rights and safety of its students. Guangcheng, theoretically speaking, would also be protected by that. Kurt Campbell presented this plan to the Chinese officials. To everyone’s relief. They accepted it, but the acceptance was conditional. The Chinese side added a prerequisite, one that is still the source of recriminations and controversy years later. Guangcheng will be allowed to enroll in NYU Shanghai. But first, he must leave the embassy to receive medical care at Chaoyang Hospital in the middle of Beijing. 

 

Colin Jones: The whole idea of transferring Guangcheng to Chaoyang Hospital fit nicely with the legal pretext that Harold had come up with. Remember that, according to Harold, Guangcheng had been allowed to enter the US embassy primarily to receive care for his injured foot. Assuming that was true, which it wasn’t, but assuming it was for the sake of diplomacy, it made sense that Guangcheng might later be moved to a Chinese hospital to undergo more extensive treatment, but to do so, he would also have to reenter Chinese jurisdiction. And that possibility really scared Guangcheng. He just spent seven years in detention, and he had totally reasonable fears of what the Chinese government would do. The minute he left the US embassy, this is when Jerry Cohen says he was called. 

 

Jerry Cohen: I remember sitting here just like we’re sitting now, and the phone calls started coming from Beijing. The first day came from, Harold and, Kurt, and they put Guangcheng on the phone. He had said he wanted to talk to me before he made any decisions. 

 

Colin Jones: Guangcheng was worried about leaving the embassy. After hearing the outlines of the agreement. Jerry started to worry about the whole NYU Shanghai plan. 

 

Jerry Cohen: I was trying to get from him what assurances the government was giving and the best we could get. Was. The Chinese government said he would have the same freedom as any Chinese student. And I thought that’s not good enough, etc.. 

 

Colin Jones: Jerry says he pushed back, but there wasn’t a lot of room for give. It seemed the Americans were getting annoyed by Guangcheng’s hesitation to what they thought was a pretty elegant solution. 

 

Jerry Cohen: Kurt Campbell got on the line and he was trying to intimidate me. This is the most important decision you’ll ever make, and you better make the right one. I said, I don’t need you to tell me that. Put me off that Harold saying that things were going bad. He got on the line and we did better after that. 

 

Colin Jones: When we ask Guangcheng about this part of his time at the U.S. embassy, he told us he did not want to talk about it. So I asked Jerry what he could tell from the phone calls. 

 

Jerry Cohen: They were pressuring him. There is no doubt that the embassy people, were putting him under enormous pressure. The dialogue that was going on, you really have to feel sorry for Guangcheng. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Eventually, Guangcheng did agree to leave the embassy at the hospital. He was reunited with his family, his wife Weijing, and their two children. U.S. officials have promised them that they would be safe. But as time went by, to Guangcheng’s horror, those assurances started to feel more like platitudes than actual promises. 

 

Jerry Cohen: And it was bizarre because the American officials took him to the hospital and they were there in the hospital, as Chen’s wife later said, was filled with secret police. And they were scared stiff because they thought they were going to lose their security. And American officials all went home at night. Nobody stayed overnight with them. And no decision had been made. 

 

Colin Jones: At the hospital. Guangcheng felt completely abandoned by the embassy staff who left him. He told us he blamed Obama himself. Guangcheng believes the president had told embassy staff to prioritize the U.S. relationship with China over his well-being. But on his way from the embassy to the hospital, a reporter had slipped Guangcheng a cell phone. And that first night, when he and his family were left by themselves, Guangcheng started making calls. That’s coming up next. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Left alone at a hospital room in Beijing, is surrounded by Chinese state security. Guangcheng turned to an old friend and comrade, Teng Biao. 

 

Teng Biao: It’s kind of amazing. He could still memorize ,y telephone number. My cell phone number. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Teng Biao later published the transcript of his call. The two friends exchanged greetings. Teng Biao tells Guangcheng that the people who care about him are hoping he could find a way to leave China and get to the United States. Guangcheng seems taken aback by the suggestion, but Teng Biao is adamant Guangcheng has been told that he and his family would be safe at NYU Shanghai. But Teng Biao insists that the government would betray any promises of amnesty it made. 

 

Teng Biao: I persuaded him not to listen to the Chinese government. He will not be safe. He will not be free. And he will not be able to continue his human rights activism if he stayed in China. And then I strongly persuade him to go to the United States. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: While Guangcheng was under house arrest. Teng Biao had been kidnaped by Chinese authorities. He endured torture and months of detention. So did dozens of other legal activists. In fact, 2011, the year before Guangcheng’s escape, has seen the harshest crackdown on legal activism in over a decade. 

 

Colin Jones: Guangcheng and Teng Biao spoke several more times. On their second call. Guangcheng told Teng Biao that the nurses were refusing to give him and his family dinner at the hospital. One of his children was crying from hunger. 

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] And so at that moment, I understood very clearly in my heart that with the way things have progressed, I really could not stay in China any longer. In other words, had I stayed any longer, there would be real serious danger. 

 

Colin Jones: Guangcheng had made up his mind. He had to reject the deal the Americans had negotiated with the Chinese government. 

 

Jerry Cohen: And the American government didn’t even know he had made that decision. They were all asleep. But in the meantime, I think Teng Biao put, Chen in touch with the Associated Press or one of the foreign correspondents, and Chen told him, I want freedom. And when the Americans got up, they saw the world’s pressing them. Get him out of China. That’s when they really called me back the next day and said, let’s how are we going to do this? 

 

Colin Jones: In addition to calling Tung Biao, Guangcheng also talked with Bob Fu, who was following the story closely from the US. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: So you knew about Guangcheng immediately after he left on house arrest? 

 

Bob Fu: Yes. Yes. Yes, yes. 

 

Colin Jones: Bob had already helped Guangcheng publicize his case once Bob’s organization ChinaAid had posted the video Guangcheng recorded under house arrest. Now he was about to help Guangcheng make an even bigger public statement. 

 

Chris Smith: The commission will resume its setting. And I just want to, apprise everyone that, Bob Fu has made contact with Chen Guangcheng. 

 

Colin Jones: This is Congressman Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey. He convened an emergency congressional hearing on Guangcheng’s situation. While Congressman Smith called witness after witness to testify on China’s human rights record. Bob had been furiously trying to dial up Guangcheng on a number he had just gotten from a reporter. Finally Bob got through. 

 

Chris Smith: We just had a an interesting and I think an enlightening conversation. But we’re going to put him on—

 

Colin Jones: At this point. Bob, who’s holding an iPhone up to the microphone, begins translating for Guangcheng. [clip of Bob Fu translating]

 

Colin Jones: From his hospital room in Beijing? Guangcheng tells Congress and the rest of the world that he wants to come to the US. He says he hasn’t rested in seven years. He expresses gratitude toward Hillary Clinton, and he says he wants to meet her. 

 

Chris Smith: Chen, thank you very much. And as I indicated a moment ago, you have a panel of people, who have just testified on your behalf—

 

Colin Jones: Then Congressman Smith gets to the point about this hearing is an opportunity to criticize China and to frame the way Guangcheng was being treated as a moral failure of the Obama administration. 

 

Chris Smith: Your case is the test. The test, of the Chinese commitment to to protect you, which they’ve given. We’re very dubious about those assurances, but it’s also the test of the United States as to whether or not human rights really do matter. So your plea, that the secretary of state, who did not meet with you in, the embassy, go to your hospital room and meet with—

 

Yangyang Cheng: Congressman Smith, goes on to tell Guangcheng that Christian Bale had called in an hour earlier to express his support for Guangcheng. 

 

Chris Smith: To convey his solidarity and concern for your well-being and that of the rest of your family. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Bob then translates Congressman Smith’s words into Chinese, but he refers to Christian Bale as Batman. [clip of Bob Fu translating]

 

Yangyang Cheng: Here Bob stumbles over translating the word Batman. Bat boy, bat person. [clip of Bob Fu translating] It’s Guangcheng who reminds Bob of the correct expression. 

 

Chen Guangcheng: Bianfuxia.

 

Bob Fu: Bianfuxia, bianfuxia. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: This whole time, Bob has been seated next to Representative Smith, up among the congresspeople in South, instead of down at the table where the witnesses usually are. It seems like he had rushed up to hand the congressman his cell phone with Guangcheng on the other end, and then remembered that he had to stay there and translate. 

 

Bob Fu: Yeah. Chris, was actually rebuked. Yeah. Congressman Smith was, rebuked, by violating committee rules or allowing a witness to be on the, on that part. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Over a decade later. This call remains one of the proudest moments in Bob Fu’s life. Up until Guangcheng started making calls, the negotiation over his fate had taken place behind closed doors and beyond public scrutiny. Now it was all out in the open. And here in United States, Guangcheng’s predicament was no longer simply a diplomatic dilemma. It had become partisan fodder in an election year. 

 

[clip of Mitt Romney]: The reports are, and if they’re accurate, that our administration willingly or unwittingly communicated to Chen an implicit threat to his family. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: This is Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for president that year, 2012. 

 

[clip of Mitt Romney]: It’s also apparent, according to these reports, if they’re accurate, that our embassy failed to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would assure the safety of Mr. Chen and his family. If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom, and it’s a day of shame for the Obama administration. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: The American press, from the evening news to late night comedy, added their voice to the fray. 

 

[clip of Jon Stewart]: But of course, challenges still await our nation for instance, we turn our attention to our current debt holders and future overlords. China. Hillary Clinton is over in China now, negotiating sensitive issues from Iran to Syria to North Korea. It was all going pretty well until—

 

[news clip]: One of China’s best known dissidents has managed to escape from house arrest. It said that he’s being hid inside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. / Chen’s dash for freedom couldn’t come at a more awkward time for the US. 

 

[clip of Jon Stewart]: Way to go, Chen. [laughter] I mean, how inconsiderate can you get? Blind human activist Chen Guangcheng. Couldn’t wait just two more weeks to escape oppression. Try thinking about somebody else for a change. Jailed. Working to end China’s forced abortion and sterilization policies. Guy. 

 

Colin Jones: All this negative coverage became a real problem for the Obama administration. Hillary later wrote that it was like throwing fuel on a political fire. At the time, her people were tracking the matter closely. Sending emails to Hillary about the increasingly negative tone press coverage was taking. For Danny Russel, this negative coverage was a distraction. He told us that this chaos is what Bob Fu and the Republicans had been after from the start. 

 

Danny Russel: Throughout the discussions with the Chinese, Bob Fu and his group played an extraordinarily harmful, manipulative, highly politicized role that I think increased the risk to Chen Guangcheng and created unnecessary obstacles to an outcome that would safeguard his wellbeing and his right to speak and to act. I don’t want to make this about Bob Fu, but I’ve found him to be a zealot and a self-promoter. 

 

Colin Jones: I emailed Bob to see if he wanted to respond to Danny’s comment. Bob wrote back that he was, quote, “Just a bridge for Chen Guangcheng to speak for himself.” Bob wanted Guangcheng to make his own case, why he and his family could not stay inside China, as the CCP and the Obama administration had originally negotiated. [music plays] Guangcheng’s request to leave China put the American side in a hard place. Having already agreed that Guangcheng would go to NYU Shanghai. Kurt Campbell had to go back and tell him that the whole thing was off. Kurt did it, though, after he first offered his resignation to Hillary if things didn’t work out. In her memoir, Hillary Clinton says she felt like she had to personally make a request to the Chinese government to keep the negotiations alive. And so, on the morning of May 4th, she asked if, rather than going to NYU Shanghai, Guangcheng might be permitted to leave China to attend NYU in New York. The Chinese government did not give a direct answer. Hours went by and then they made a statement. On the surface, it was general to the point of being almost meaningless. But for Danny and others who knew what was going on behind the scenes, the message was loud and clear. 

 

Danny Russel: I think it was the Foreign Ministry spokesman saying something like, well, any Chinese citizen is free to apply for a passport, if they have a legitimate reason to travel abroad. And when I heard that, I thought. Bingo. That’s it. 

 

Colin Jones: New York University, where Jerry Cohen worked and directed its US Asia Law Institute, offered Guangcheng a fellowship. The barefoot lawyer and his young family were going to the United States. Here’s Jerry talking to our reporter at the time. 

 

[clip of news anchor]: Professor, with all that your friend has been through in the last several days, what was your reaction to the statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry? 

 

Jerry Cohen: I was ecstatic. I woke up feeling wonderful when I saw that early this morning. I hope his application for a visa will be approved, and I hope he’ll have a chance for study, repose. Exchange of ideas and it will be a stimulating, useful experience for him. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: When all of this was unfolding. In the spring of 2012, I was pursuing my PhD in physics at the University of Chicago. Still new to the US. I follow the daily developments of the case. Worried for Guangcheng, his family. I was relieved and indeed elated by the outcome. To me, at the time, the United States was the land of the free. Arrival meant liberation. A decade later, I no longer see the saga as one with a happy ending. Exile is a permanent wound for which there is no healing, no cure. I wonder how much Guangcheng had anticipated where he would end up the moment he slipped past the guards at his house. With the benefit of hindsight, one could say his fate was already sealed when he made his way to the U.S. embassy. From the perspective of the Chinese state, by turning to the Americans for help, Guangcheng had betrayed his country. His grievance was no longer with the local authorities or specific policy. He had effectively defected. These days, I often replay the scene of my own departure from China in my mind. The sight of my mother standing at the bottom of the escalator at Shanghai Pudong Airport, waving goodbye. It’s as clear as yesterday. Had my 19 year old self known then the choices I would make years later. Might. I have spent my last months in China differently? I told Guangcheng about the moment it dawned on me that I would not be able to return to China in the foreseeable future. It was during one evening a few years ago when I was alone in the office. Unlike him, I had already been living in the US by then, so the rupture was mostly emotional. How did Guangcheng feel on the eve of his departure from China, as the reality sank in that it would be the last moments he spent in the land of his birth? He responded by recounting a moment on his one way flight out of China, where a U.S. embassy official gave him a kind reminder.

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] When I was on the plane, the U.S. official who flew with me said to me that before you arrive in the U.S., there’s something I need to tell you. We need to talk. I said, sure. And we had this conversation when they said, well, I wanted to tell you that after you arrive in the United States, the environment is completely different from that in China, and your own situation will be completely different. So you need to be extra careful. I said can you give me some examples. He said, well, for example, there might be some organization that invites you to work with them and they might give you a car in exchange. You must think very carefully. Is that what you really want to do? If not, you do not have to be polite. Just say no. And if yes, then go for it. That’s all I can tell you. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: In many ways, this conversation on the plane foretold what lay ahead for Guangcheng in the US. 

 

Colin Jones: That’s next time on Dissident at the Doorstep. Dissident at the Doorstep is an original podcast from Crooked Media. Our hosts are Alison Klayman, Yangyang Cheng and me, Colin Jones. From Crooked Media. Our executive producers are Tommy Vietor, Sarah Geismer and Katie Long, with special thanks to Mary Knauf and Alison Falzetta. Our senior producers are Maria Byrne and Meg Cramer. Maura Walz is our story editor. Our producer is Wudan Yan. Our associate producers are Boen Wang and Sydney Rapp. Translation by Valerie C, with additional translation by Yangyang Cheng and Richard Yeh. Voiceovers by Richard Yeh. Our fact checker is Tamika Adams. Sound design and mixing by Hannis Brown original score by Ilan Isakov and our podcast Art is by John Lee.