In her memoir Hard Choices, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised her own work and that of the State Department in securing the departure of threatened dissident Chen Guangcheng from China.
Chen, now in Washington, D.C., disputes this version in his own memoir, in which he laments pressure by Clinton’s State Department to trust the Chinese Communist Party– so much pressure that “I no longer felt that they were on my side.”
In an extensive dive into Chen’s memoir, The Barefoot Lawyer, Politico unearths a significant amount of criticism of Clinton’s attitudes, as well as the White House’s. Chen escaped house arrest in 2012– after being convicted of assorted crimes against the state for advocating against state-forced abortions– and fled to the U.S. embassy, where he made public statements requesting asylum in the United States along with his family. As he had broken a leg during his escape, American diplomats urged him to go to a hospital, and Chen notes that they insisted on going to a Chinese rather than internationally-run hospital, which concerned him.
Chen writes that he felt Clinton and her deputies were more concerned with resolving the dispute in a manner acceptable to the Chinese government than to himself and other dissidents. He cites as an example the National Security Agency’s move to prevent him from accessing the internet while hospitalized, just as Chinese officials demanded he be barred from speaking to media. He cites this and other moves on behalf of the Obama administration as steps “I took to indicate that the White House no longer supported me and that I was to leave the embassy in short order.”
“I no longer felt that they were on my side,” he writes.
Politico cites one anecdote in particular that Chen appears to fully dispute in Hard Choices:
In Clinton’s memoir, she writes that when Chen finally agreed to go to the Chinese-controlled hospital, he “jumped up, full of purpose and excitement, and said, ‘Let’s go.’” The dissident describes the moment quite differently, expressing dejection and disappointment: “Suppressing the emotion in my voice, I said, simply, ‘Let’s go.’”
The Telegraph also highlights a paragraph in The Barefoot Lawyer that summarizes the ordeal in Chen’s words succinctly: “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 wept.”
The State Department responded to a query from Politico by praising Chen’s “dedication” while adding, “America’s unwavering support for human rights is an important element of our relationship with China.”
Chen has criticized the American government’s insistence on treating the Chinese Communist Government as an honest actor in negotiations before. In a column at the Washington Post in June 2014, Chen criticized Clinton’s memoirs for describing the situation surrounding his escape to the United States as one in which “Chinese authorities were ‘scrupulous’ in living up to their agreement with the United States.” “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he wrote, noting that several relatives of his had been subsequently harassed or arrested by the Chinese Communist Party.
In an interview released this week with the Wall Street Journal, Chen also expands on his criticisms of the Obama administration, and Hillary Clinton in particular, lamenting that in the face of relentlessly cruel dictatorships, the Obama administration “has been fooled.” He notes that upon arriving at the U.S. embassy in 2012, he was greeted warmly and promised he would receive the strongest advocacy on behalf of America possible. After a call from the White House, however, “things started to change. After another meeting three days later, the situation completely switched and the new order was to get me out of the embassy as quickly as possible to avoid have a bad influence on relations with the Communist Party.”
With a hint of optimism, Chen adds: “But if you look around the world, even though the U.S. is sometimes weak in the face of dictators, it’s still the best defender of freedom there is.”
Even amid the stress of the situation, in 2012, there were signs that Clinton was not doing enough to help Chen evade Chinese authorities and escape to the United States. After his escape from house arrest, Chen made a personal plea to Clinton to help him escape the country: “My fervent hope is that it would be possible for me and my family to leave for the U.S. on Hillary Clinton’s plane,” he told the Daily Beast. Clinton was in town to give a speech and would be leaving soon. She did not respond publicly to this request and did not mention Chen in her public statements during that trip (she did make a passing note of human rights).
While Politico attempts to make the case that this is a story about the 2016 presidential horserace– and, surely, this will be another blow to a campaign that has been dead in the water since Clinton began the birther movement— it is much more largely a story about how the Obama administration has traditionally treated political dissidents. Chen’s complaints of being undervalued and strong-armed into negotiating with an unreasonable tyrannical government echoes those of Cuban dissidents in the wake of President Obama’s unprecedented concessions to the Castro regime, an ally of China. “We live in daily fear that we will be killed by the fascist government. And now, the U.S. — our ally — turns its back on us and prefers to sit with our killers,” said Guillermo Fariñas of the diplomatic “thaw,” a dissident who has conducted 23 hunger strikes and, at the peak of the government’s attacks on him in 2014, was getting arrested “every Monday.”
“These agreements are considered by a vital segment of the Cuban resistance to be a betrayal of the aspiration for the freedom of the Cuban people. They are unacceptable for us. A country’s principles and right to freedom are not the property of any government, no matter how powerful and influential,” said Jorge Luis García, a dissident known as Antúnez who spent 17 years as a prisoner of conscience.
But it is perhaps Berta Soler, leader of the anti-communist Cuban group the Ladies in White, who best illustrates the internationalization of the White House’s dismissive attitudes towards freedom fighters internationally, from Beijing to Havana: “[Cuba] seeks the same model as China, seeks oxygen. What he wants is a capitalist economic system and a communist political system.”
That Chen experienced during his escape the type of resistance from the White House that these Cuban dissidents describe– despite being a much more high-profile case against a government even more universally reviled for its oppressive– proves that the Obama administration’s diplomatic problems may have begun with Hillary Clinton, but they certainly didn’t end there.