EYE OF THE STORM
Trying to elude our pursuers, our driver wove in and out of traffic, accelerating and then braking suddenly, jerking us back and forth in our seats. Deputy Chief Wang finally told the driver to take it easy, fearing that an accident or some other mishap would draw the unwanted attention of the police. To me, he said simply, "Don't worry, you're safe now. You can breathe easy." He held my hand tightly, which felt wonderfully reassuring and caring after everything I'd been through.
Slowly my heart was returning to something like a normal rate, but I would feel real relief only when we were inside the embassy itself. Even there, I knew, I would be marooned on an island of freedom set in a sea of party rule; for now, though, I was overwhelmed by spontaneous gratitude, a drowning man pulled out of a river who at last gasps the open air. When the danger is real, I thought, America lives up to its most basic values. Deputy Chief Wang, Yang Junyi, and a man in the front seat were continually taking phone calls as we drove, including at least one from Washington. Their phone conversations were all in English, but there was one phrase I thought I understood: "in the car." Wang told me that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had sent me a clear message of support.
When we reached the embassy gate, Yang instructed me to put my head down: the guards outside were Chinese citizens, and I needed to stay out of their view. The other two cars followed us right up to the gate and stopped—I was safe. I thanked our driver, who surely didn't find himself in such car chases every day but had proven himself to be remarkably skilled.
Wang stepped out of the car and led me inside, still holding my hand. He was concerned about my foot, repeatedly asking if it hurt. In fact, I was no longer bothered by the pain; I'd been too overwhelmed by recent events to pay it much heed. Several embassy staffers followed us up to the third floor of one wing of the compound, where the marines charged with defending the embassy in an emergency live. My presence in the embassy was kept quiet, known only to a handful of diplomats in the political affairs department.
Wang led me to my room, which had a bed, a table, and a large wardrobe. While I rested in an upholstered chair, the embassy staff set to making the bed with fresh sheets and blankets. Everything felt new and plush—the carpets, the towels, the pillows. The bed was high, and difficult to get onto with my injured foot.
In the chaos of the car chase, I'd left my few possessions in Ding Ding's car, but Wang and his staff saw to everything, graciously and efficiently. Much of what they gave me had been brought from their own homes, including new dress shirts taken directly from one of the diplomats' own closets. I soon had a shortwave radio, a little voice recorder, a cup, a toothbrush, and toothpaste. I asked for a computer and was told that the embassy would find something for me as soon as possible. Staffers also brought me food and a crutch from the infirmary; I had to use it just to get across the room. "Whatever you need," said Wang, "just tell me. Washington has made it very clear that we should do everything possible to help you." These words filled my heart with warmth and gratitude.
Throughout the day, Deputy Chief Wang stopped in numerous times to see how I was doing. There was a sincerity and a genuineness of spirit in him and the other officials that moved me greatly, and I felt full of hope that America would live up to its role as a leader in human rights, that justice could finally be achieved. Secretary of State Clinton was truly a person of vision, I thought. The significance of the gestures made by the United States government on my behalf went well beyond me; indeed, they validated for all humanity the importance of the universal values of human rights and dignity, so often diluted by commercial interests.
That evening, I told Wang about the videos I had made with Zhengjun and Yushan. I still had no information about the friends who had helped me escape, and I feared for their safety. Wang told me that Pearl had already contacted the media; indeed, later that night, nearly one week since I had slipped away from home, the earliest Chinese-language reports about my escape came out and the video made in our Beijing safe house was released. As word spread on the Chinese Internet, my name was banned as a search term; so was "blind man," and then even the word "embassy." Netizens managed to stay one step ahead of the censors by making coded references to the movie Shawshank Redemption, with its famous prison break, and by using the phrase "going into the light," playing on the meaning of my name in Chinese.
The following day, April 27, Ambassador Gary Locke returned to the embassy, having cut short his vacation because of my arrival. That morning, he and Deputy Chief Wang came to see me, expressing great concern about my injuries. I thanked them and told them I was extremely worried about my family and friends. They informed me that a team of high-level American diplomats would soon be arriving in Beijing, led by Secretary of State Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Beginning on May 3, the American team would be holding a two-day "Strategic and Economic Dialogue" with top Chinese officials. I wondered how my situation would sit with their agenda.
Yang came by later and let me use his phone to call Yushan. He and Pearl were safe, he said, but he had heard news that my nephew Kegui had been injured in a confrontation with Zhang Jian, a ringleader in our house arrest. The details were as yet unknown.
Those first two days in the embassy were productive and restorative. Aside from being attentive and generous, Ambassador Locke and Deputy Chief Wang seemed fully committed to helping me achieve justice and pursue my work. Diplomats from the political affairs department brought every meal directly to my room; many of them said they felt that the United States was doing something profound and important in helping me. I was filled with gratitude and affection. They asked repeatedly whether I wanted to go to America; I told them that for now I hoped to stay in China so that I could continue pushing for the rule of law and promoting human rights.
A nurse had seen me soon after my arrival at the embassy on April 26, and she'd given me medicine for my ulcerative colitis that helped immensely. The next day, a doctor came by as well. Carefully examining my injured foot with his hands, he discerned that I had broken at least two bones, possibly three. I was touched by his gentle manner, so professional and yet so compassionate, in stark contrast to the treatment I had grown used to over the past seven years. Everyone agreed on the need for an X-ray; the only question was how I could get one, given the obvious dangers of leaving the embassy to visit a hospital. Yang was only half joking when he asked whether we could use the X-ray scanner at the embassy security check, though of course the doctor didn't think that was such a good idea. "Well then," said Yang, "we should look into purchasing an X-ray machine for the embassy, with support as strong as it is in Congress for your case." I was struck by the dedication and enthusiasm of my hosts, who seemed willing to go to any length to help me.
Later that afternoon, Yang brought me an iPad and read me the news. I had never held such a device, having only heard about it on the radio while listening under my quilts in prison. He read some of the messages Chinese netizens were leaving on the embassy's website, thanking the Americans for taking care of "our light." He also helped me look up information about my nephew, and we found a recording of a conversation between Kegui and an American netizen, during which Kegui described what had happened. I wept as I listened, and Yang comforted me.
From this and other sources, I would eventually learn the details of how on April 26, Zhang Jian had led a horde of thugs to Elder Brother's house. They broke in, scaling the walls of the family's yard and storming inside; they hooded Elder Brother and took him off to the police station, where he would endure three days of torture and interrogation. Other cadres attacked my sister-in-law, while another group surrounded Kegui and beat him with clubs until he was covered in blood. Fearing for his life, Kegui grabbed a knife to defend himself; Zhang Jian and two of his cohorts sustained minor injuries in the melee. Kegui would later be arrested, detained for "intentional homicide," and sentenced to over three years in prison, in obvious retaliation against me.
After listening to Kegui's account, Yang helped me find Radio France's online news program. He then stepped out for a meeting, leaving me to revel in the clarity of the program, which I was hearing for the first time without signal interference.
Alone in my room, I listened to the news until the iPad suddenly shut down, at around six p.m. I was unable to turn the device back on, so I put it on the table and waited. I expected that Yang would be back around six-thirty, but in fact he didn't return until around nine that night. Aside from the person who brought my food, no one else came to see me, in stark contrast to the regular appearances they had been making so far, both day and night. When Yang finally returned, I could tell he was both saddened and deeply disturbed. I asked him to help me go back online, but he said it was late and that he had to head home to his wife. I don't like pestering people, so I didn't press him.
After he left, I sat in a chair beside the window with my foot propped up on a stool, my crutch on one side, the table with the iPad on the other. From my brief conversation with Yang and from the shift in the other staffers' attentions, I understood that something had changed dramatically. Apparently, at a meeting on April 27 of the National Security Council with President Obama in the White House, the "policy had changed." The new directive was that from then on, no one was to help me go online, which, given my disability, made it impossible for me to know what was happening beyond the confines of the embassy. Moreover, it was agreed that my case shouldn't damage the relationship between the United States and China, and thus my situation should be resolved immediately—language I took to indicate that the White House no longer supported me and that I was to leave the embassy in short order. Most disturbingly, I learned, some officials at the meeting had suggested that democracy and human rights in China were not in America's best interest. Apparently, not a single person at the NSC meeting had spoken up to argue that America should protect human rights or to insist that the U.S. government should stand up for its founding doctrines and essential values.
When I heard this, I was dumbfounded, stung. So this was the America we all put on a pedestal, the concrete manifestation of what is good and just in humanity? Out of all the nations in the world, and all the embassies that could have provided a safe haven, I had sought the succor of the United States, believing with every cell in my body that this country, above all others, had both the commitment and the strength to protect the rights of the individual over the interests of a dictatorship. The moral authority lay unquestionably in the hands of the Americans; why, then, would the country we all revered for its values choose to turn away from human rights?
The following morning, April 28, Deputy Chief Wang appeared in my room. He told me that normal embassy rules dictated that everyone who came into the compound had to go through security. Of course, my situation was different, he added, and nothing had been checked when I arrived, but now Washington was asking that I hand over all my electronic devices for a routine security check. I could tell he was under pressure. I sympathized with him and handed over my talking watch, cell phone, and chargers.
In the afternoon, my watch was returned to me but not my phone—Wang said they would give it back when I left the embassy. He also told me that Washington had wanted the embassy to check the radio, but he hadn't bothered to take it. The iPad was left in my room, but I had no way of using it on my own. From this point on, I was effectively cut off from the outside world.
It was fast becoming clear that some Americans hoped my stay here would be short. Embassy staffers were still friendly and enthusiastic when providing food or arranging medical care; these small acts of kindness now seemed to be the only way they could express their concern. Otherwise, most of them seemed worried about something they weren't able to talk about. I felt like an invisible wall had risen between me and the staff, one I was reminded of each time I got up from the bed and inadvertently ran my hand over the unusable iPad on the table.
Of course I knew that the diplomats here in Beijing, however generous and willing to help on a personal level, ultimately had to answer to Washington. Secretary of State Clinton might have voiced her support, but the order to prevent me from communicating with the outside seemed to have come straight from the White House. "Don't be disappointed," Wang said, "this is how it goes with politics." In my own view, as so often in human relations, greed was likely coming before justice, and economic considerations were being given more weight than people's fundamental rights. The specter of profit constantly haunts the world's dealings with China, and the United States was far from immune. Is there no country that truly represents and embodies the most basic values of humanity? I maintained my faith in the American people, knowing—hoping—that a democratic country would not just eject me from the embassy, could not just throw me to the wolves. For now I said nothing, but I was on guard. The high-stakes political maneuvers were just beginning.
At noon the following day, April 29, Ambassador Locke, Deputy Chief Wang, and I spoke in the garden while we waited for the arrival of the other diplomats who were forming a negotiating team to work out my situation. I told Ambassador Locke that I was extremely concerned about my family, especially after hearing the news about my nephew, and that before we discussed anything with the Chinese authorities, the persecution of my family had to stop. Ambassador Locke assured me that my family's safety was their number one concern as well.
Soon, Harold Koh, the legal adviser for the State Department, along with another key negotiator, Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, arrived at the embassy and joined us in the garden. We moved chairs around a circular table to make ourselves more comfortable; I felt the sun warming my face.
Koh and I had met briefly the day before; he had described how his father had come to the United States as a South Korean diplomat, later becoming a dissident in the 1960s. Campbell was introduced to me by Locke, who announced that the assistant secretary's primary responsibility was to make sure human rights were not obliterated by the Strategic and Economic Dialogue about to take place. Both Americans impressed me as being capable, steady, and focused.
Campbell told me that he and his team had already met with their Chinese counterparts to talk about my case. "We have our principles, and we will protect your interests," he said, adding that the team was considering various proposals in an effort to come up with a workable solution. "However," he assured me, "our first priority is the humane treatment of you, your children, your wife, and your mother." When I mentioned my concern for my oldest brother's family, Campbell said the Chinese central government should undertake a careful investigation and that there needed to be a process that the central government would "accept and acknowledge."
I was encouraged by his words, then surprised when he passed on some unexpected news. New York University, with one of the best law facilities in the world, was opening a campus in Shanghai. "They want to offer you a three-year scholarship, including a stipend," he said, "so that you can complete your studies. This is a unique opportunity that has been put in place quickly to allow you to be able to start a new life." He went on to say that I would be able to leave Dongshigu and study with NYU law professors such as Jerry Cohen. He also said that his team had already written out this proposal and presented it to the Chinese government.
"Our time is extremely limited," Campbell said, "and we are in the process of working out the parameters of the proposal. First of all, they need to acknowledge that they won't take legal action against you simply because you came to the embassy. Secondly, they need to allow you to study and live in peace, and your civil rights need to be guaranteed." I thanked the Americans profusely for their efforts on my behalf, adding that I was also concerned about my right to leave and enter the country.
Campbell then told me that they had been informed that the Chinese government would agree to hear my story and that, in fact, the Chinese leadership had been concerned with my case for some time. "They acknowledge that your civil rights have been violated," he told me, "and there are at least a few negotiators on the Chinese side who respect and support you. The only way to achieve our goals, however, is if we act quickly."
I found it odd that he kept emphasizing that the situation needed to be wrapped up quickly. I had lived under persecution for over seven years, after all, and I told Campbell that I wanted to make sure that the proposals were watertight.
"I now want to ask something of you that might be premature," Campbell said. "I need you to believe in Ambassador Locke, Mr. Koh, in me, and in Deputy Chief Wang. We need you to trust us. We will work to protect your interests, and to help and support you and your family."
I said I trusted them implicitly and was grateful for all they had been doing.
Campbell told me that the Americans were hoping to work out an agreement with the Chinese within twenty-four to thirty-six hours. "Now, there are two choices: one, come to an agreement with the Chinese government, be reunited with your family, and have your rights guaranteed," he said. "This will be a formal written agreement between the two countries. Another option is that you would stay at the embassy indefinitely, but in that case we would have no idea whether or not the government would actually allow you to leave the embassy, or even China. I would also, in that case, be concerned for the safety of your family and of your friends and supporters." He again said, "You must believe in me," reiterating the narrow window of time.
Actually, I already believed in Campbell and the other diplomats, and I wasn't sure why he kept telling me that I should trust them. My greater concern was the time frame. Though it might be possible to reach an agreement with the Chinese government in the next day or two, a proper investigation of my case would take much longer. In my mind, there could be no resolution without a thorough, transparent inquiry that led to the prosecution of those responsible for the injustice done to me and my family.
As our conversation came to an end that afternoon, Campbell said, "I promise you that we will find a good school for your children, and that I will help to find a good place for you to study, in your own country, to live peacefully." He then added that with the assistance of the embassy, I should call Weijing that evening and tell her to pack her things: staffers would pick her and our two children up in Shandong the following day. We had no phone in our house, but the diplomats said they would find a way to get through. If all went as planned, they said, I would be reunited with my family the following evening.
Before Campbell and the others left to continue their discussions with their Chinese counterparts, Harold Koh asked Wang to read me the letter from the president of New York University, offering me a three-year scholarship at NYU. The letter invited me to study at NYU's new Shanghai campus, as well as the university's main campus in New York City in the future. Wang handed the letter to me when he was finished. I told them I would happily accept the invitation and that I would tell Weijing about it when I spoke to her later that night; I thanked them again and again for their efforts and concern and again mentioned the safety of my family and friends, urging the Americans to raise the issue at the next meeting.
After Campbell, Koh, and Locke left to continue negotiations, Wang helped me back to my room, asking me what I thought. I said I was optimistic, and impressed with the dedication of the American team. "My ultimate goal is not to oppose the Communist Party per se," I told him, adding that I would be against any party that maintained a dictatorship and would also support any party that embraced democracy and the rule of law. Wang left soon after to join the next round of talks. For the time being I stayed in my room alone, playing through everything that had happened and wondering how the Chinese government would respond to the Americans' proposal.
That evening, Campbell, accompanied by Wang, came back with a report that I found deeply troubling. He prefaced it by saying that my case had gone to the highest levels of the Chinese government and that they had already come to a decision. There was some good news and some bad. "First," he said, "they agree to let you reunite with your family. Second, they will make sure the abuse stops. Third, they hope you will stay in Beijing for a while to enable them to take a record of your treatment." The Americans would need my support to help achieve these basic goals, he said.
Then came the bad news: although the Chinese authorities would agree to let me go to another city in Shandong Province, they would not allow me to go to NYU in Shanghai. "They aren't pleased with the idea of your going to a Western institution to resolve the situation," Campbell said. "It makes them feel like they are losing face." As long as I was away from the petty tyrants of Yinan County, they seemed to be saying, all would be well. The idea that going somewhere else in Shandong would end my persecution, though, was a farce. I had been told on numerous occasions that the orders pertaining to my treatment were not confined to local actors and, most likely, came from the highest echelons of the party and government leadership.
"I don't think I can accept that," I said. "If they are worried about losing face, then they shouldn't do things like this, especially in the age of the Internet. They still think that if they do something bad, they can just cover it up."
"Besides Shandong," Campbell asked, "where else would you consider living? Beijing?"
"If there were guarantees about my safety, then I would consider Beijing. I'm not so concerned about exactly where. It's more that their demands are incredibly conservative and controlling. A citizen has the right to movement and should be free to choose where to live. They have no right to limit my choices, to say they are giving me a choice. They shouldn't ask if I'm living here or there—I should be at liberty to make that choice myself. If they are going to interfere with this, then how will I know my civil rights will be honored in the future?"
We debated these issues a while longer, and before heading off to take a call from Washington, Campbell agreed to raise my concerns in the negotiations the following day. Again I was left in the room with Wang, who concurred with Campbell that the Chinese didn't want the Americans to get too involved in a situation involving a Chinese citizen. I found it strange that when it came to practical solutions, the facts of my treatment—namely, that I had undergone over seven years of abuse at the hands of the authorities with whom the Americans were now negotiating—seemed immaterial.
"It's like this," I said. "If it weren't a question of my safety, then why would I have come here? If there were anywhere else in China I could go where I felt safe, why would I have come to the American embassy? In 2005 I went through the officially sanctioned process and reported my case to the police, and as a result I was detained. And no one paid any attention. Why would I do that again? The officials in the central government never want to look at themselves for the root of the problem—as long as they hold on to power—but will do anything to avoid losing face." It was clear to me that the issue of "face" raised by the Chinese government was simply a distraction tactic—and one that was particularly effective with Western governments.
The embassy never arranged for me to talk with my family that night, and I never found out why. Reflecting on the day's discussions, I concluded that the Chinese side had indeed done a lot of work on the "face" front and that it might help matters if I wrote up a few things in response. The next morning—April 30—I dictated a memo delineating five points to Wang, which I wished him to give to Campbell, the head of the negotiating team. The points were as follows:
1. Freedom of movement. It is my right as a citizen, not the Chinese government's, to choose where I go and where I live. In carrying out their promises, the Chinese side should be acting in service of my rights, not controlling my rights.
2. Would I have come to the American embassy if my safety was protected on Chinese soil? I came to the embassy because of a real and present danger, a circumstance protected under Chinese law; as such, I should bear no legal consequences.
3. On the surface, my going into the embassy may seem like a foreign affairs matter, but in reality it is a question of human nature and basic humanitarianism: saving a life. Every country—not just the United States, a nation founded on the principles of democracy, freedom, and human rights—has a responsibility to save someone from imminent death or face strong criticism for inaction.
4. In Chinese law, a basic principle is clearly enunciated: a citizen may do anything, as long as it is not prohibited by law. That is to say, according to Chinese law, there are no restrictions regarding whom I may associate with. Therefore, I may associate with whomever I choose. If you feel uncomfortable with my associating with Americans, for instance, that is due to the fact that you still harbor sentiments left over from the Cultural Revolution and have not fully implemented Deng Xiaoping's ideas related to "seeking truth from facts" and liberating one's thinking, both of which have already been integrated into the party's mission and the nation's constitution.
5. I demand a transparent, public investigation leading to the prosecution of the officials in Shandong who were involved in my case. If, in the process, other officials are implicated, they all need to be investigated thoroughly, no matter how many or from what rank; a schedule must be announced. If, after the Strategic and Economic Dialogue is over, you continue to procrastinate, this will not be acceptable.
Wang promised to pass these points on to Campbell, and I spent the rest of the day in my room, weighing the potential scenarios and possible outcomes and wondering what the Americans would bring back later that night. I've often observed that the Chinese government will strike an aggressive stance but will give in easily if an opposing side holds its own. I was certain that if the Americans drove a hard line in the negotiations, their Chinese counterparts would likely capitulate.
That night, Harold Koh and Kin Moy, the deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, as well as other embassy staffers, came to my room with an update. Koh said they had spoken at length with representatives from the Chinese government, that they had a lot of information to give me, and that I should listen hard and be prepared to make a decision. "It was not easy," Koh told me. "They are quite angry with you, and also angry at the U.S."
"Are they angry with themselves?" I asked, amazed at their audacity.
Ignoring the chuckles from others in the room, Koh said, "They are angry at Shandong and don't understand why Shandong officials would treat you that way. We discussed a proposal with the Chinese side, and you can decide for yourself if you want to accept it or not. The Chinese side won't make any other offers, and after this there are two other choices, neither of which is very optimal. One would be that you stay here at the U.S. embassy indefinitely, without your family. The other would be that at some point you might be able to go to America, but alone, not with your family, and no one could say for how long; moreover, we wouldn't know if the Chinese government would even allow this.
"If you choose to accept this proposal—that is, if you leave the embassy tomorrow and go to Beijing Chao-Yang Hospital—you will be able to be seen by Chinese doctors for a few days, maybe one or two weeks, while they do an evaluation. Embassy doctors and officials will continue to visit you at the hospital, as the hospital is not far from the embassy."
When I heard this, I was confused: Chao-Yang Hospital, though well known and respected, was under the control of the Chinese government. Embassy officials had previously said I should go to an international hospital, ostensibly under the auspices of the United States and other democratic nations, as they believed my medical and personal safety were of utmost importance. It sounded as if the Americans had allowed their negotiating position to be significantly eroded.
Koh continued: "During these one or two weeks, you will not be allowed to have contact with the media throughout the period of the strategic talks. But there are two good things: you will be reunited with your family and an official will come to the hospital to document the abuse you and your family suffered, and will later carry out an investigation.
"At a later point," Koh said, "Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama will raise your case with Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, Xi Jinping, and others"—that is, the Chinese president and premier and the general secretary of the Communist Party—"and will let them know that they are concerned about you and your family and express that they believe you should be treated humanely. They will also bring up the situation with regard to the people who helped you escape from Shandong. High-level U.S. officials will continue to pay attention to your case and will continue to hold the Chinese side accountable to its promises. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton will raise your case with the Chinese leadership—i.e., Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao—during the period of the strategic talks and beyond. This will help ensure the safety of you and your family. In two weeks, the Chinese government will allow you to leave to go to university and will give you a housing and living stipend. They have already found seven schools where you can study, though they won't allow you to go directly to the NYU Shanghai campus."
I asked why I couldn't go to NYU's Shanghai branch when I already had the university's letter inviting me to study there for three years.
"We don't know. Probably because it's an American institution."
"Isn't Bo Guagua"—Bo Xilai's son—"studying at an American university?" I said. "Why are they letting him go? And isn't Xi Jinping's daughter at Harvard? Or is that not an American institution?"
"I believe they're afraid you'll have contact with Western media," Koh said.
"It's my freedom of speech," I protested, exasperated at having to defend the idea of basic freedoms to American officials. "This is a civil right protected under Chinese law, and it's also one of the things I need them to agree to protect. If they are going to continue to limit my freedom of speech, then it's a farce for them to say—like they did earlier—that they are going to protect my civil liberties. Civil rights are not just about living accommodations and having enough to eat, as they would like to have it."
I gathered that the American side thought I would accept the conditions presented by the Chinese, and indeed they began pressuring me to come up with a decision. Oddly, the admissions of guilt and wrongdoing on the part of the Chinese government had evaporated, and the Americans didn't seem to think it necessary to keep this on the table.
Time in the hospital was certainly a necessity, as there was only so much care the embassy could provide on-site—but surely the American negotiators understood the potential dangers for me at a Chinese-controlled hospital? It was also true that I wanted to study the law more formally than I had before, but otherwise this "deal" was absurdly inadequate, deftly avoiding all my important demands and indeed even further infringing on my basic rights. I would not accept two weeks without contacting the media, but I also found it extraordinary that the Americans seemed to think it would stop at this. And why, I wondered, should I renounce my right to freedom of speech at a time when the media's oversight role could be pivotal? Why should I wait two years before going to NYU, where I'd been invited—and why this list of seven universities chosen by Chinese officials? When Koh read me the list of schools, I discovered that it included my alma mater Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine. And what did I care about the authorities paying my tuition, providing a kind of measly minimum wage, when they were clearly spending millions on my detention and wouldn't meet my basic demand that they investigate my case?
"If you agree to our proposal," Koh said, "you can choose one of these schools, either today or, at latest, tomorrow. I urge you to accept this proposal."
"I don't trust them," I said, dumbstruck. "You can see how anxious the Chinese government is to have me leave the embassy, but after I leave they are clearly planning to continue to restrict my freedoms. I can't accept this. The thing I proposed was that they immediately cease the persecution of me and my family and protect my civil rights. They even mentioned on the first day that they were in the wrong in some areas and admitted that I had indeed been abused. They should immediately cease the abuse and guarantee my freedoms, not because of anything outlandish but because these are the most basic human rights. I don't think they should be adding any more restrictions."
I felt that I had to explain further: "In 2005 I was illegally detained; then they put me in jail for over four years, having fabricated a crime. When I got out of jail, they put me under illegal house arrest. Altogether that's seven years. Do they think that's not enough? They still want me to waste another two years?" I asked incredulously. "They aren't interested in solving anything. The only reason they are doing this is to make me leave the embassy, because if I do, they can continue to exercise control over me. Moreover, at the same time that they are in dialogue with you, they are persecuting those who helped me escape Shandong, and from April twenty-sixth on, they have arrested my family and friends. While they are talking with us, they are just continuing their old ways. If they want me to trust them, they need to immediately stop all illegal persecution, they need to respect my right to make choices, and they need to guarantee all of my rights as a citizen."
"Because you chose to come to the embassy," Koh responded, "you have begun a relationship with the United States, and we need to strengthen this relationship. The first time we met, I told you that time was of the essence. I don't think you should refuse an offer that's already in hand. This is a good proposal. You will be reunited with your family, and you have the invitation from NYU." The three-year invitation, the Americans indicated, was effective indefinitely and had no requirements as to a start time; they seemed to be suggesting that after an indeterminate period of political sensitivity had passed, I would be allowed to attend NYU.
"Mr. Koh has repeated the positive points of the proposal over and over," I said, "but I maintain my concerns that my rights are not being guaranteed. For example, if they really want to go ahead with this, there is no reason that it all needs to begin tomorrow, with me leaving the embassy. I need to see what they will actually do first. If they are unable to make any steps to repair any of their mistakes and tomorrow I go to the hospital, then there's no way to predict who, if anyone, outside of the embassy staff, will be able to see me, and for how long. After two weeks, if there is always someone there monitoring me, and there are cars and people following and surveilling me wherever I go, I just can't accept it. I don't believe that they will protect my rights as a citizen. This is all about coercion. They are forcing me to leave, to not have contact with the media for two weeks, but even after that time, what can anyone do if suddenly they decide that they don't want me to have any contact at all with the media from then on?"
I made clear to the negotiators that we should reject the proffered Chinese "deal" wholesale and stick to our demands. Yet the Americans now seemed suddenly in league with their Chinese counterparts, as if a secret agreement had already been made between the leaders of the two sides. Throughout the day, I met with Campbell, Koh, and Locke, with Wang always translating, but I no longer felt that they were on my side. They kept encouraging me, as if I were a child, to see just how beneficial the Chinese terms were. I should trust that my safety really would be guaranteed, said Campbell, because with America I now had a "big brother" on my side. If you accept, they kept emphasizing—quickly adding that it was up to me, of course—you can stay in China, be with your family, be a hero to the Chinese people, and continue your work, which would surely be well funded. "We'll create a support network to sustain you," Campbell told me, saying that it would include both international donors and governments. What's more, he said, a high-level Chinese official from the central government would make a record of my case. "I'm confident that this is the very best the United States can do," he added, then swapped the carrot for the stick: "If this goes on any longer, they will accuse you of treason."
"As for Chinese officials coming to hear and record my treatment," I said, "you're not going to get any real promises on this count. I'm guessing that they might come and listen, but following that, there will be no way to hold anyone responsible or to deal with those who are responsible. It's just like all the petitioners. The central government sends the cases back to the local authorities, where the problem began originally. Once the Strategic and Economic Dialogue is finished and you all go home, they won't pay much attention if embassy staffers seek them out. Over the past year, many people from the American government have raised my case, and Chinese officials haven't responded at all. Last year on January fourteenth, Secretary of State Clinton raised my case in front of the Chinese ambassador in the U.S., but China had no motivation to respond. That's why I think we have to be stronger and insist on them stopping the persecution and guaranteeing my and my family's rights, now. They have already admitted that they made mistakes and that I was abused. If we begin with this as a basis, I don't think they can refuse.
"If I have no assurances," I continued, "then I'm just switching locations, from being under illegal house arrest in Shandong to another place of my so-called choosing but still under house arrest. This is not a way to resolve this situation."
Koh said, "But they have already promised that you can be with your family . . ."
I laughed bitterly. "If I hadn't escaped, I would still be with my family, right? I really don't think I should accept simply being with my family as a condition."
I could tell that Koh was disappointed and that he believed that I wasn't enthusiastic enough. They seemed to think I was incapable of making a rational decision. They had avoided responding to my demands, and at the same time they were passing on the demands from the central government. Koh wanted me to clearly understand that by the next day I would have to accept the proposal, and he kept saying I should be practical. I urged them to find a way to guarantee my rights as a citizen.
Before long, Koh left, and I continued talking with Kin Moy. He began by praising me and saying how brave I was, but that sometimes the bravest act was to put one's emotions aside. I didn't understand what he was getting at. He also emphasized the benefits of the proposal: "Regarding the seven universities, I don't think they're that great either, but they're also not terrible."
"If they really want a good university for me," I said, "I think they'll find some excellent ones in Beijing or Shanghai. They shouldn't demand that I leave tomorrow for the hospital, because my family is not there. You all can go there with me, but when you leave, who will stay with me? Don't you think that's rather dangerous? If you ship me off to the hospital and then head home, that is sending a clear signal that you are handing me off to them. In that case, how would we know when—or if at all—my family would be allowed to come here, and under what conditions? Even if they are allowed to come here, we have no way of knowing what would happen when they got here.
"If something bad happens," I felt I had to point out, "there's no way to correct it. That's why I say that if they really want a resolution, they need to immediately cease the persecution of my family, bring my wife and children to Beijing, and then the central government can interview my wife about our treatment in Shandong over the past many years. After hearing what she has to say, if they respond appropriately, it will not be too late for me to go to the hospital. This, to me, is a reasonable way forward. Don't you agree?"
"Maybe," Mr. Moy said. "But you might not be aware that our time—"
"—is extremely tight," I finished for him.
He asked me how long it would take for my family to get to Beijing. I said about eight hours by car. "Well, then, if it takes eight hours, I will go immediately," he said, and he soon left.
A little while later, Locke and Wang arrived. Everyone was a bit dejected, and it was getting late. I again expressed my fears that my safety and rights were not being guaranteed. "If you take me to the hospital," I said, "what guarantees will I have that you will be able to bring my family here, or that I will actually see them? And if you can't find me, what recourse will you have?"
"With this proposal," Ambassador Locke said, "you would be able to go to NYU's Shanghai campus after two years, or you could apply to another school."
"I understand the rationale," I said, "but in this scenario, what happens if they don't allow me to go at all? Clinton raised my case on more than one occasion, right? If I lose the upper hand, they'll do whatever they want. The only way to keep them to their word is to do everything under the light of the media—then they might worry about how their actions will be perceived. They don't care about anything that happens behind closed doors. In addition, I haven't seen any response to my demand that they immediately cease the persecution and guarantee my civil rights. I don't even have any basic freedom of speech. Demanding that I not have contact with the media for two weeks is completely unjustifiable. Contacting the media at whatever time I choose is my right."
I wondered if the Americans fully understood the power Chinese officials have over ordinary citizens. "If I can't speak out, then we've only changed the scenery," I told them. "At home they locked me up, took my cell phone, and prevented me from talking to anyone on the outside. From where you stand, it looks like there is a limit to their demand that I not speak to the media for two weeks in the hospital, but in reality, there is no way to say what they will do. It's just like when I was in jail: when I served out my term, I should have been free to live my life as I chose. But they threw me in their car, took me to my village, and locked me up at home."
I knew my negotiators were getting anxious that I wouldn't accept the proposal; they kept asking me what it would take for me to agree. I repeated my demands: "The Chinese government must immediately stop the persecution of my family, bring my family here, and both listen to what my family says about what has been going on in Shandong and acknowledge what happened there. Also, the authorities must promise to protect my rights when I leave the embassy. If they can make this known and protect my rights as a citizen, including my right to freedom of speech and my right to exit and enter the country, as well as my freedom of movement within the country, then I might consider their proposal. If they are not willing to concede anything, if there is nothing concrete, I can't agree to it."
When I had finished, the room was silent. Finally, Koh spoke: "A decision has to be made, regardless. Is there any other information you need to come to a decision?"
"Of course I need more information," I replied. "I have no information whatsoever except from what you tell me. I can't get in touch with my family or friends or get advice from friends who could help me, like Professor Cohen."
Koh left to try to get in touch with Jerry, and after a while they put me on the phone with him. I told him simply and directly what the situation was: that despite having no concrete promises regarding my rights or my safety, they—both the Chinese and the Americans—were trying to get me to leave the embassy. Professor Cohen replied, "Isn't safety the number one concern? You need to stay safe." Back in my room, the Americans repeated their statements about the benefits of the proposal and how if I chose to remain in the embassy my rights would be restricted and my family would continue to be abused.
I asked, "If they're not letting me go to NYU now, why would they change their minds a year from now? If they continue to interfere with my rights, who's to stop them? I know you are going to say that the U.S. government will continue to watch my case and will demand that they protect my rights. Why, then, can you not demand that my rights be protected now, at this time? If you think they won't respond now, why do you think they will respond later?"
Hours passed. Campbell came back to my room after he'd finished another meeting with Washington. "The proposal has come out of the last three days of intense talks," he said. "I want you to know that the White House, the State Department, and the secretary of state all support you. This is the first time you have really come into contact with the U.S., and you will find that this is a relationship that will last a lifetime. I know you withstood persecution and abuse, and I know your path has been extremely difficult and brave. You are a figure of tremendous latent power in China, and in the coming years, when the drama in China has shifted inexorably, you will be able to take your place. We have guarantees from the Chinese government, the U.S. government, and nonprofit organizations that you will have support going forward, and we will create a support system to help you in your life and in your future. We just finished talks with the Chinese government, and they will take care of the details of getting your family to Beijing. We also just went to the hospital, and they have prepared the best room for you. If you don't leave the embassy, the Chinese government will accuse you of treason, and then you won't be able to leave the embassy for many, many years or you will have to go to America on your own and leave your family behind. I ask for your trust. The American government and the Chinese government will take care of your case from the highest levels of government. This is the best way forward. We need you to leave tomorrow. You should know that hundreds of people back in the U.S. have been working on your case night and day. It's the best we can do, and I don't think we can do any more."
"I am so grateful," I said. "Originally, however, we should have been making demands that Chinese authorities protect my rights, but now the situation has turned so that they are making demands and will only act depending on what we do. It's quite bizarre!"
"They will do an investigation," Campbell said.
"I will leave only if I know they have already begun an investigation."
Campbell began to get agitated. "Mr. Chen, we need to be clear. After tomorrow, unless we have progress, they will accuse you of treason. That's why we have planned for you to reunite with your family tomorrow at the hospital, because they won't allow your family to come to the embassy. We support this proposal. Deputy Chief Wang will go with you to the hospital tomorrow. Secretary of State Clinton will be arriving, and she has assured us that she will raise your case with the highest levels of the Chinese government. Now that this has come to the light of day, they can't make a mess of this. If you leave here tomorrow, you will become a hero to the Chinese people. If you remain here, the Chinese government will accuse you of treason. You need to understand that in that situation, we will have no way of helping you. You would remain here as a foreigner, and we would not be able to help. You will still have issues with your government, and you will continue to struggle with them. There is no question of this.
"But now you have a big brother, the American government, on your side. And I can guarantee that you will not lose your big brother. You need to believe in us. Things are different now—you aren't in Shandong anymore. And you are no longer stuck in your tiny village surrounded by thugs who will beat you. There will be no thugs on the campus where you go to study. I can promise you that I will not leave China and I will not sleep until you are reunited with your family. This is today! You will be a hero to your people. The reason why the Chinese authorities want you to leave is that they are afraid of you. They are afraid of you because they know that you could become a very important figure in this country. You must be brave. You have to be brave."
"Can you please bring my family here first?" I asked.
Campbell took a deep breath. "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. And tomorrow, you will leave here to go to the hospital. And you will also need to take one important step: to make a statement that the American government has been extremely helpful and that you completely trust us."
I thought about my excruciating escape and my flight to the one place in China that seemed safe: the American embassy. I hadn't expected that so many people on both sides would be working so hard to get me to leave, without guaranteeing my rights or my family's safety. No one seemed to be putting pressure on the Chinese Communist Party; instead, they were dumping shipping containers of weight onto my shoulders to get me to do their bidding. Suddenly I was overcome by sadness, and I wept.
Ambassador Locke comforted me. "You are going to meet your family," he said, "and I will go get them. You should let me know how much time you think your family will need to get ready and pack their things."
Didn't they know that we had nothing? Everything, down to the last pencil and smallest scrap of newspaper, had been confiscated or destroyed. We had only the clothes on our backs, which we had worn for years. By then, though, the thirty-six-hour deadline stressed by Campbell had arrived: Clinton would be landing in Beijing on May 2, and the U.S.-China summit was about to begin.
On the morning of May 1, Ambassador Locke and some others came to my room, told me they had made all the preparations for the move to the hospital, and asked if I was willing to go with them. No, I said, I am not. None of my rights are being guaranteed in the slightest. Ambassador Locke turned and left. A while later, Deputy Chief Wang stopped by and told me that Hillary Clinton would likely come by to see me around nine the next morning. "Think about what you want to say to her," he advised.
That afternoon, the Chinese authorities called American officials to see if I was in fact leaving the embassy. As I learned later, U.S. negotiators told them that I hadn't agreed to the conditions in the proposal. The Chinese side seemed anxious and asked for an explanation. "Mr. Chen doesn't trust you," replied the Americans. The Chinese authorities immediately announced they would bring my family to Beijing. I greeted this news cautiously and asked if embassy officials would be going to Shandong to pick up my family, as they had promised. No, they said, the Chinese side wouldn't allow it.
My heart sank as I considered the symbolic and practical implications of this change of plan. For one thing, it looked like the Americans had lost another fight, and by doing so they had relinquished control of the situation. Equally important, my family would be brought to Beijing surrounded by the very authorities who had persecuted us over so many years. This plan was fraught with dangers that the U.S. team apparently did not perceive.
Embassy officials assured me that they would be with me the entire time I was at the hospital, that they would stay in an adjacent room, but I now fully understood the precariousness of my position. The Americans either didn't understand what I had been through or were being easily deceived by their Chinese counterparts. I still held out hope that these officials had my best interests—my safety—at heart. But despite my repeated requests that we wait to see the party's true attitude before making a decision, Koh and Campbell would not change their minds and did not appear to heed my requests and listen to my concerns. Couched in various turns of phrase, their message was clear: "You have to take this deal."
Later that day, an embassy official asked me if I wanted to call Professor Cohen again, and of course I did. When he picked up the phone and heard it was me, he immediately blurted out, "I never said you had to reject their proposal!" Apparently, the American side had been pressuring him as well, wary of the counsel he had been giving me, and hoped he could talk me into leaving. Earlier I had asked to talk to various members of the U.S. House of Representatives—Nancy Pelosi, Frank Wolf, Jim McGovern, and Chris Smith—but apparently the embassy had not followed through.
My fate had now become a critical test case, watched by the world: could the Chinese government guarantee the rights of even a single Chinese citizen, and could the United States hold it accountable if it didn't? Basic inviolable freedoms, like the ability to be together with my family, were presented by the Chinese government as if they were magnanimous concessions. American hearts might be in the right place, but what was needed now was an iron will to persevere and negotiate hard.
My conversations with Campbell, Koh, and the others continued that evening, and we talked long into the night. As the time wore on, nerves became frayed. At one point, Campbell threw up his hands and said, "I'm so upset, I don't know how else to help you. 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!" Exhausted by the pressure and intensity, he, too, shed tears before storming out of the room.
On the morning of May 2, Kin Moy, a translator, and some others came to my room. They told me that staff from the Chinese central authorities had ordered provincial officers in Shandong to bring my wife and children up to Beijing. I would soon be meeting with Ambassador Locke, they said, and afterward I would be taken to the hospital. I protested that I had yet to agree to anything, but I was told I would be taken to the ambassador's office while staffers and officials began packing the few things in my room.
Over the past few days, I had requested numerous times to meet with China's top leaders, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, but all anyone would say was that a high-level official would see me at the hospital. "Why can't they come to the embassy?" I asked. In lieu of such a meeting, I was told, I could write a letter to give to Hillary Clinton, who would personally hand it to Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao during her visit. Though I knew from radio reports that Clinton had arrived in Beijing, our proposed meeting never materialized, and a letter seemed the only possibility on offer. The officials encouraged me repeatedly to write the letter, and so I did: sitting in Ambassador Locke's office, dictating to a translator, I detailed in three pages and for the thousandth time all that I'd been through. I cried as I wrote this letter, reliving seven years of suffering, the painful experiences surfacing once again.
At one point, Weijing called to let me know she had arrived at the hospital, adding that "things are just fine back home." This was the first time I'd spoken with her since leaving Dongshigu. I understood immediately that she was not able to speak freely, but I urged her to tell me what was going on. She said she was in a conference room, surrounded by the officials from Shandong—the very ones involved in our house arrest. Hearing this, I was infuriated: just as I had feared, the Chinese side was making every preparation to continue their control of my family.
While the translator was cleaning up the letter, other officials gathered around me again, urging me to leave the embassy, using all kinds of excuses and rationales. "Aren't you worried about your wife?" they asked me. "We know you want to protect her. You shouldn't stay in here hiding. Your family is already at the hospital." I was also told that Hillary Clinton would call me when I was in the car and headed to the hospital, another obvious nudge to get me out of the embassy. The American negotiators were unrelenting; only Ambassador Locke remained silent.
I asked to speak to Weijing a second time, and after ten minutes the call was put through. She urged me to leave the embassy because of my health, saying that the American officials were telling her that if I didn't leave within fifteen minutes the Chinese "would rip up the agreement." I could tell that she was still not able to speak freely. She had no way of knowing all the machinations at work, but I felt a deep obligation to protect her, to be with her in life or in death.
After an awkward pause, Harold Koh announced that we were running out of time—if I didn't leave within the next twenty minutes, the Chinese would accuse me of treason.
At this point, what could I do? I had reached the end of the road. Where else could I turn for justice? I had brought my case to China's highest authorities, to the American embassy, and to the world's attention, detailing seven years of blatantly criminal acts, detentions, tortures, and lies. But what troubled me most at the time was this: when negotiating with a government run by hooligans, the country that most consistently advocated for democracy, freedom, and universal human rights had simply given in. My heart ached. At home under house arrest, I had shed blood; at the embassy, I shed tears, the youthful idealism that had buoyed me through my most discouraging and painful times now giving way to colder, clearer realities. Nonetheless, I was and always will be grateful to the U.S. embassy in Beijing and its staff for protecting me and sheltering me. Without the embassy's help during that critical period, I have little doubt that I would have been sent back to Shandong to endure even greater torture and suffering than that which I had experienced before.
By noon, the wheels were in motion. I was given something to eat, but I was too depressed to take a bite. I heard people gathering in Locke's office; the embassy photographer moved around us snapping pictures. Someone must have had a video camera trained on us: Ambassador Locke spoke a few words to me, but from his voice I could tell that he was really addressing the millions of strangers who might be tuning in.
"Are you ready to leave the embassy of your own free will?" asked Ambassador Locke.
I didn't answer him directly, pausing a moment in suspended time as I contemplated where I stood. The immense pressure was excruciating, and it was clear that none would relent. I realized that I would have to be on my own, and yet there was no way for the ambassador or any of the Americans in the room to understand what I had been through or to fully appreciate the depths of my disappointment and despair.
Though I could not see them, I turned my face to each of the officials surrounding me, taking in each one in turn. Suppressing the emotion in my voice, I said, simply, "Let's go."
From The Barefoot Lawyer by Chen Guangcheng. Copyright 2015 Chen Guangcheng. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Co., LLC.