Suddenly, the Chinese Foreign Ministry broke its silence on the case, issuing a statement in which it lambasted U.S. interference and demanded an apology.
To many outside the government, it appeared as if the Chinese were annulling the deal. But many U.S. officials who were there say that the Chinese appeared willing to follow through on the deal and would have, if Chen hadn’t changed his mind.
“To this moment there is no aspect of those understandings that they didn’t fulfill,” said one senior U.S. official, noting that the Chinese had kept their promise to open an investigation into the abuse Chen suffered and allowed him to communicate freely.
The closing pitch
By the morning of Thursday, May 3, in Beijing, it was clear there was a problem: Chen wanted to leave China.
U.S. officials realized they had underestimated the animosity of Chen’s friends and fellow dissidents toward his decision to stay, and overnight as he sat alone with his family, they had clearly persuaded him to reconsider.
By then, the conference was in full swing, and any negotiations would have to take place in the short breaks between sessions.
For the first time, U.S. officials floated the idea of Chen going to the United States. With the situation rapidly falling apart, they suggested it was the quickest path to resolution. At an afternoon meeting, Cui appeared angry as he listened to the proposal but left to convey the message to his leaders.
That night, after a full day at the conference, Clinton gave her tired and dispirited negotiating team a pep talk. They weighed the options, including allowing for a cooling-off period. But ultimately, Clinton called for a full-court press to reach an immediate solution.
Hours later, Campbell contacted Cui to tell him they needed another meeting in the morning.
Cui responded heatedly, his voice so loud it could be heard by others in the room with Campbell: “We did this once already!”
By morning, Clinton decided to raise the stakes and meet directly with Dai Bingguo, China’s senior foreign policy official. A sit-down was scheduled for 9 a.m.
Clinton opened with praise for both sides’ negotiators and their original agreement. Then she carefully framed the new proposal in terms of the first deal.
The plan all along had been for Chen to be able to study in the United States after his two years in Tianjin, she pointed out. All the United States was asking for was to move up that timetable.
She described the moment in lofty terms — as an inflection point in history that could have enormous bearing on future relations between the two countries.
Dai sat very still and, when he spoke, did so almost in a whisper.
China has done all it can, he said. He hesitated, then added that if the Americans believed more was possible, the negotiating teams could sit down again.
“I don’t want to talk to him anymore,” Cui blurted out in Chinese, gesturing toward Campbell.
Dai told Cui to try once more.
“We go out uncertain what to expect,” one official said. “What we’re waiting for is a signal.”
Breach of protocol
A glimmer of hope came not long afterward, at Clinton’s meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao.
In the middle of the meeting, as Wen and Clinton were talking, a junior Chinese officer stood up from the table and pulled Cui, China’s ambassador to Washington, Zhang Yesui, and their lieutenants from the meeting — an extraordinary breach of typical protocol.
Behind a large wall, the Chinese officials held an animated deliberation. When the officials returned to their seats, they appeared tense but slightly more confident.
After the meeting, one of them pulled Campbell aside. “Are you certain this is what he wants?” the official asked.
“We’re absolutely certain,” Campbell replied.
During a lunch break, as the State Department’s Victoria Nuland briefed reporters, a journalist handed her a BlackBerry with a news alert from Xinhua, China’s official news agency.
Chinese officials had declared that, as a Chinese citizen, Chen was free to apply to study abroad. Whether it signaled that the Chinese had fully committed to letting him go — or were simply stalling — remained unclear.
Shortly afterward, Cui met again with Campbell and three other Americans.
For a full hour, he harped on the issue of U.S. interference. Shortly afterward, Cui made his first mention of the Xinhua story.
“That’s when we knew it was a deliberate move,” one U.S. official said.
The Chinese laid out their demands. They wanted to make clear publicly that Chen was receiving no special treatment, and they needed an undefined period of time before releasing him so it did not appear as if they were caving in to outside pressure.
Most of all, they insisted the agreement was to be presented as a series of parallel and separate undertakings on both sides, not as a “deal,” or even as an “understanding.”
Cui departed with a final warning to the Americans: Don’t say anything that would force us to contradict you.
A last-minute statement
The meeting left the Americans 20 minutes before Clinton was to address reporters.
At least seven senior U.S. officials gathered around a computer to cobble together a statement.
At the news conference, as Cui had been promised, Clinton spoke in positive but general terms. Her spokeswoman released a statement describing U.S. expectations “that the Chinese Government will expeditiously process his applications” for travel documents.
After six days of nearly nonstop crisis diplomacy, there was nothing left to do but wait for word from the Chinese.
It came 15 days later, as Chen was whisked from his hospital and put on a plane to Newark.