Human-rights advocates on the Hill mobilized today in support of Chinese dissident Chen Guancheng in the face of an Obama administration that appeared more uncomfortable with the activist’s desire for asylum as the day went on.
“What began as a purported diplomatic triumph evolved into a diplomatic fiasco,” said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, at a hearing quickly called on the matter today.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, pulled together the emergency hearing in the Rayburn House office building this afternoon amid reports that Chen, who had taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy after escaping from house arrest April 22, wanted to leave the country with his family.
Smith called it “appalling that President Obama had no comment” when asked about Chen at Monday’s joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
The hearing featured various Chinese human-rights activists — but the headliner was Chen, who spoke by mobile phone from a hospital in Beijing after calling hearing witness Bob Fu of ChinaAid.
“I want to come to the U.S. to rest. I have not had a rest in 10 years,” Chen told the hearing. “I’m concerned most right now with the safety of my mother and brothers. I really want to know what’s going on with them.”
“I want to meet with Secretary Clinton,” Chen added. “I hope I can get more help from her.”
“We are praying for you and we will be unceasing in our efforts” to help, Smith told Chen — fittingly, on this National Day of Prayer.
Chen, who lost his sight in his youth and self-trained as a lawyer, is a champion for Chinese who have been abused by the communist government’s one-child policy. He fought back — even with a class-action lawsuit — against the forced sterilizations and forced abortions targeting the rural poor, and torture of those who try to resist and their families.
Sentenced to prison in 2006, Chen had been under house arrest since his release in 2010. As Chen tried to communicate with the outside world, Chinese authorities beat Chen and his wife and installed metal sheeting over their windows. They even confiscated his young daughter’s toys.
Smith tried to visit Chen last year to no avail, as did actor Christian Bale, who was roughed up by Chinese guards as a CNN camera crew in tow filmed it all.
Over at the White House today, officials tried to deflect questions to the State Department as moral questions came crashing down on the administration from all corners.
After all, Wednesday morning began with a sunny statement from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton following Chen’s departure from the embassy and admittance to a Beijing hospital to receive treatment for a foot injury suffered in his escape.
“I am pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng’s stay and departure from the U.S. embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values,” Clinton said. “I was glad to have the chance to speak with him today and to congratulate him on being reunited with his wife and children. Mr. Chen has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment.”
As if trying to wish Chen into taking the route that would be diplomatically easier on the U.S., White House spokesman Jay Carney, under a barrage of questions at the daily press briefing, kept stressing that Chen had previously said he wanted to stay in China.
“I can assure you that the president is not concerned about political back-and-forth on this issue,” Carney said. “He is focused on the need to advance U.S. interests in our broad-based relationship with China — very important economic, diplomatic relationship with China. He has and will continue to make it priority in that relationship, or part of that relationship, an open and frank discussion of our concerns about human rights.”
Smith noted that, despite official protestations to the contrary, there are questions about whether Chen was pressured to leave the U.S. compound, shortly before Clinton’s planned arrival for economic talks with Beijing.
Smith said that he called the embassy after learning that Chen wanted to speak with him, but his call was never set up by State Department officials.
As if trying to buffer China’s anger over Chen’s initial refuge, State Department officials told reporters on a call Wednesday that Chen was admitted to the embassy on humanitarian grounds, seeing as how he’s blind and had been injured in the 200-mile journey to get there. The officials repeatedly stressed that Chen wanted to stay in China and that the Chinese regime promised him humane treatment and university courses.