How U.S. diplomats rescued Chinese dissident

U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke explains how he engineered a plan to bring Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng to the U.S. Embassy.
CBS News

(CBS News) We have a much clearer picture Thursday of how a leading Chinese dissident wound up in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, setting off a diplomatic crisis. It's like a story straight out of Hollywood with the blind dissident escaping house arrest, American diplomats rescuing him, and then racing him to the embassy with Chinese secret police in hot pursuit. The news comes at the same moment the U.S. secretaries of state and the treasury are in Beijing to negotiate trade and policy agreements.

On Wednesday, the U.S. returned Chen Guangcheng to the Chinese after they promised he'd be safe and he said he wanted to stay in China. But on Thursday, Chen asked Secretary Clinton to take him out on her plane. Then later that day, a phone call with Chen was patched into a congressional hearing in Washington. Chen told the committee he wants to come to the U.S. to rest.

It's a story that will likely make a movie some day. CBS News correspondet David Martin has the latest details.

The almost-not-to-be-believed saga of Chen Guangcheng is in the understated words of one U.S. diplomat "one of the most challenging human rights cases we've had in some time."

Having escaped from house arrest, Chen was hiding out with fellow dissidents in Beijing when the U.S. Embassy, headed by Ambassador Gary Locke, mounted an operation to bring him in from the cold.

"When we got the word that he was in Beijing," said Locke, "and wanted to talk to us in the wee hours of the morning, we went out and contacted him, and then we engineered almost a maneuver out of 'Mission: Impossible' to bring him into the embassy."

The maneuver involved transferring Chen from a van driven by the dissidents to a U.S. government car while evading Chinese surveillance; then spirit him back to the U.S. Embassy past Chinese guards whose job is to prevent would-be defectors from reaching the embassy.

That's when six days of negotiations began. Ambassador Locke flew back from vacation in Bali to negotiate with the Chinese on Chen's behalf.

"He did not want to go to the United States," said Locke, "so the choice was to help him get back into China to be a freedom fighter, as he wanted, or if the conditions negotiated with the Chinese government were not to his satisfaction, he was prepared to stay in the embassy and live there for possibly years."

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The Chinese brought Chen's wife to Beijing and promised he would be reunited with his family and given a scholarship to attend law school -- if he came out of the embassy. When Chen balked, the Chinese said his wife would be sent back to the village where the two of them had languished under house arrest.

"He talked with his wife twice, and then made that decision on his own to come out of the embassy and rejoin the family," said Locke.

It was Chen's decision but with his wife's well-being in the balance, it would seem he had little choice. Still, Ambassador Locke insists no one forced Chen to leave.

"I remember asking him in front of many, many witnesses, 'Are you ready to leave? Is this what you want to do?' And he just paused and sat there very quiet for several minutes and jumped up beaming, excited and said, 'Let's go.'"

Chen was reunited with his family but also back under Chinese control and apparently decided he'd be better off coming to the United States.

But for now, the Chinese have Chen and U.S. officials have not been allowed to see him since he had that change of heart.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.