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.
This morning, U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke gave a lengthy accounting of the Embassy’s version of events as they tried to broker a deal that would see Chen released back into China. Locke said Chen didn’t agree to the proposals until they said his family would be brought from Shangdong Province to Beijing.
“I can tell you unequivocally that he was never pressured to leave, he was excited and eager about leaving when he made his decision, announced it,” Locke told reporters. “…And he was fully aware of and talked about what might happen to his family if he stayed in the Embassy and they stayed in the village in Shangdong Province.”
Chen told a CNN correspondent that he left the embassy only because U.S. officials were encouraging him to do so.
“At the time, I didn’t have a lot of information,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed to call my friends from inside the embassy. I couldn’t keep up with news, so I didn’t know a lot of things that were happening.”
He said he was told by contacts after reaching the Beijing hospital that if he hadn’t left the embassy, his wife, Yuan Weijing, would be sent back to their village “and people there would beat her.”
Chen said his wife told him that after his escape, “She was tied to a chair by police for two days. Then they carried thick sticks to our house, threatening to beat her to death. Now they have moved into the house. They eat at our table and use our stuff.”
Fu confirmed at today’s hearing that Yuan was told that if her husband did not walk out of the embassy, Chinese authorities would kill her.
“If we stay here or get sent back to Shandong, our lives would be at stake,” Yuan told CNN. “Under such circumstances, I hope the U.S. government will protect us and help us leave China based on its values of protecting human rights.”
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) will introduce a resolution next week, when the Senate returns from its weeklong break, in support of Chen.
“If America does not speak up for Mr. Chen who will? If his cause is not just and worthy of support, whose is?” Graham, who also plans to lodge objections with the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said Wednesday afternoon. “The Obama Administration should not let this moment pass. The Chinese government should be put on notice this case will have an impact on future relations between our two nations. We have leverage to use, but we need the will to do so.”
In light of the new development today, Graham’s follow-up statement was short and sweet: “If Chen Guangcheng and his family seek political asylum in the United States, the Obama Administration should grant it immediately.”
“The United States has always been a refuge for oppressed people around the world, and Chen Guangcheng’s case is an opportunity to remain true to this proud quality,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “When repressive governments abuse human rights, we have a responsibility to condemn them. When the repressed turn to us for refuge, we have an obligation to offer America’s protection.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) urged the White House to follow through on its commitment to ensure Chen’s safety.
“It should have been obvious to U.S. officials all along that there is no way to guarantee Mr. Chen’s safety so long as he is within reach of the Chinese police state,” she said. ”The U.S. should not have given in to Chinese pressure for Chen to be taken out of the safety of the U.S. embassy.”
Smith said he intends to call another hearing next week, summoning Obama administration officials to “get some answers.”
“This should have been the topic, not a topic, at the dialogue,” Smith said of Clinton and Geithner’s summit with the PRC. “Chen is a hero. This commission will stay focused on him.”
“You wonder if there were other forces at work,” Wolf said. “Had word come down from on high to resolve the Chen situation no matter what prior to the arrival of secretaries Clinton and Geithner?”
Wolf vowed “when the dust settles” to request all cable traffic, classified or otherwise, relating conversations on the Chen negotiations in the State Department and with the White House.
“The Obama administration has a moral — a high moral — obligation to protect Chen and his family, and to do anything less would be scandalous,” Wolf said. “America missed an opportunity in Tiananmen. Will this administration, too, fail to seize a historic moment? The reverberations of such failure are nearly impossible to calculate. The world is watching, both dictators and dissidents.”