First off, apologies to everyone for the lack of updates as of late. In part, it’s because I’ve been trying to keep a lower profile since certain CCTV hosts threatened to sue me, but mostly I’ve just been extremely busy with the film and a number of personal things. That will remain true for a few weeks at least, but please stay tuned, as I’ve got some good stuff in the cannon for later.
Anyway, now that Chen’s been safely in the US for a while and the American right-wing seems to have abandoned its utterly idiotic quest to paint him as a pro-life Christian figure, it seems as good a time as any to reflect on Chen’s escape or, more to the point, the collective reaction to it, and what, exactly, went wrong.
The mistake that I think almost everyone made was assuming that Chen was emotionally and mentally stable enough to be handling the international media or making decisions about his own life and his family’s lives within days of his harrowing escape from nearly two years of torture and isolation. I was taking the latest word on what Chen had said a bit too seriously, without fully considering what he had been through and what effect that probably had on his mental and physical state. Nor was I giving adequate consideration to the fact that he probably wasn’t aware that his every word was being amplified and broadcast as gospel to the world. I wasn’t that harsh in my criticism of the US Embassy at the time, but my concerns about the its handling of the case proved to be unwarranted.
(I want to stress, also, that it’s not my intention to criticize the media for broadcasting Chen’s statements as news. This was, after all, a massive story, and what its central player was saying is undeniably news. If anything, perhaps those closest to Chen should have advised him not to speak with the media for a little while, or not published everything he said live on Twitter. But in their position, I suspect I would have done the exact same thing. Basically, it was a very difficult situation for everyone.)
That said, and with the caveat that I have no inside info whatsoever, it would certainly seem as though US officials may have made the same mistake. One gets the impression they may have been rushing to resolve the situation before the SED talks, which is totally understandable from a policy perspective. But from a psychological perspective, it would almost certainly have been better to give Chen more time. That may not have been possible — I don’t know — but Chen being left alone in the hospital after he left the embassy would seem to be a sign that the US perhaps hadn’t fully considered his mental state and how he might feel abandoned in a situation like that.
Emotions certainly played a role in my own reaction to the story, too. Obviously, Chen’s case is one I had been following for quite a while, and his unexpected escape and subsequent release from the embassy all took me completely by surprise. I think it was an emotional time for a lot of us who have been following the case closely, and in my own case at the very least, it probably led me to draw conclusions — or at least to suggest potential conclusions — too quickly before the situation had been given a chance to play out.
That said, I maintain that my cynicism about the Chinese government’s commitment to holding up its side of the bargain was entirely warranted. Although US diplomats entering the picture certainly changed the situation, the fact remains that there is virtually nothing in Chen’s past to indicate the government would have any interest in treating him fairly, redressing his grievances, or allowing him to leave the country. Trust must be earned, and although (despite some suggestions to the contrary) I do not believe China’s government to be entirely evil, it had done nothing to earn any sort of trust with regards to Chen’s case. Aside from bringing his family to Beijing — albeit as a bargaining chip of sorts to get him out of the embassy — there were no signs of good faith ((I do not consider the Foreign Ministry’s statements to be a sign of anything. Yes, it said Chen would be allowed to leave China, but it also said Melissa Chan broke “relevant laws” and that Al Jazeera’s English bureau in Beijing is operating normally, among numerous other lies…)), and more than a few indications of bad faith. Chen’s phone service was interfered with, journalists were barred from visiting him, and even US diplomats were kept out at times. Chaoyang Hospital — a fairly unpleasant place under the best of circumstances ((my wife had surgery there once; it was an awful experience.)) — turned into a bizarre sort of prison with helmeted security guards and plainclothes police roaming the halls.
Of course, Chen ultimately was allowed to leave (though I doubt he’ll be allowed to return). Under the circumstances, that was the right move for China and the government should be applauded for making it ((Then it should be condemned for failing to make it years earlier, failing to prosecute Chen’s captors, and failing to protect Chen’s family in Shandong from the illegal and ongoing campaign of revenge for his escape.)). The cleanup of Chen’s home village and the disappearance of the guards there is a sign that the government may even be planning to investigate Chen’s imprisonment as it promised to, though Chen Kegui’s lawyers not being allowed to represent him is an extremely troubling sign. However, that doesn’t change the fact that prior to Chen’s flight out of China, there was plenty of precedent for pessimism and the only reason for optimism was that now the US was more directly involved, sort of. That turned out to be enough, but I don’t think it was at all unreasonable of me to be skeptical.