At that first meeting, the Americans proposed that the Chinese negotiate directly with Chen. Chen had made it clear in long conversations with U.S. officials that he wanted to stay in China so he could remain relevant.
If Chen planned to stay, U.S. officials reasoned, he would need to build trust with government authorities. Having Chinese officials see him in person would also confirm U.S. claims about Chen’s injuries.
But the Chinese rejected a meeting with Chen. Foreign Ministry officials refused to go to the U.S. Embassy to negotiate. And the Americans couldn’t bring Chen out without losing all leverage.
Over the course of the negotiations, the Chinese never put any proposals on the table. Their role was strictly reactive. At the end of each meeting, Cui would leave to report the latest terms to Chinese leaders. At times, he would enter the next meeting having come directly from the compound reserved for China’s highest leaders.
“We would put something forward, and were getting answers back almost immediately from the highest levels,” one senior administration official said. “I have never seen the Chinese government working this rapidly and efficiently.”
Meanwhile, the 12-hour time difference with Washington meant U.S. negotiators were getting little sleep, spending most of their night hours briefing the White House and State Department via secure lines at the embassy.
Negotiating with Chen could sometimes be as difficult as negotiating with Chinese officials. Conversations with him could be deeply moving. He often seemed fragile — a blind man with few possessions, sleeping in a small unadorned room in the barracks of the embassy. He talked of how much he missed his wife and worried about his children.
But he could pivot in an instant, displaying a steely shrewdness as he detailed the demands he wanted conveyed to Chinese officials.
Timing as leverage
U.S. officials say they soon came to realize that Clinton’s impending visit to Beijing might actually play in their favor.
Chinese negotiators had made clear they had a strong desire to resolve the issue before the upcoming Strategic and Economic Dialogue, scheduled to begin May 3.
If negotiators didn’t succeed in resolving the matter before Clinton’s arrival, the crisis could escalate, drawing in higher-ranking officials. It was one thing for career diplomats to privately hash it out in a room; it would be quite another for Clinton to address the issue directly in meetings with China’s leadership. It was clear the Chinese negotiators wanted to avoid that.
As one senior administration official put it: “At end of the day, having Hillary Clinton come in and put things very directly and say this is what we’re seeking . . . is of a different character than having a team of negotiators say it.”
The breakthrough came on the fourth day, when the Chinese agreed to bring Chen’s family to Beijing by high-speed train. It was the sign of good faith that Chen had been seeking — his wife and two children would be out of reach of the local authorities in Shandong province — and although Chen hesitated a few more times, it was his family’s safety that persuaded him to finalize a deal.
U.S. officials had gotten agreement from the Chinese that Chen would stay at a hospital for two weeks, then relocate immediately to one of seven universities, most likely the one in nearby Tianjin. After about two years in Tianjin, Chen would be able to study in the United States or, if he preferred, transfer to a New York University-sponsored program in Shanghai.
If all went according to plan, Clinton would be able to announce the terms of the agreement to the news media at the end of the upcoming conference.
A few hours after Clinton’s plane landed on Wednesday, May 2, Chen agreed to leave the embassy and reunite with his family at the hospital.
Ambassador Locke asked Chen three times whether he was sure about leaving the embassy and accepting the deal to stay in China. Chen told Locke he was ready to make a better life for himself.
U.S. officials had negotiated maintaining access to Chen while he was at the hospital. But on the evening Chen reunited with his family, the last official remaining decided to leave, out of a sense that they desired some privacy.
It was a decision that would be endlessly scrutinized and criticized in coming days, by Chen’s supporters, by Republican lawmakers and by human rights advocates — a decision even some U.S. officials would later acknowledge was a mistake.
The Americans had provided Chen with three preprogrammed cellphones to ensure access, but they did not anticipate that he would use them in a nonstop stream of interviews over the next two days — even calling in to a congressional hearing in Washington.
Chen began telling friends and anyone he could reach that he had been abandoned and feared for his safety. Supporters and reporters descended on the hospital, prompting a crackdown by security guards.