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Beijing: The Dissident

Hillary Clinton's book, Hard Choices, has been banned in China. So you can see what Chinese citizens can't, the publisher has posted a second excerpt from a chapter in Hard Choices entitled, "Beijing: The Dissident."

| by Hillary Clinton

( June 28, 2014, Washington DC, Sri Lanka Guardian) Shortly after I was confirmed as Secretary, a team of engineers descended on our home in northwest Washington. They installed a bright yellow secure telephone so that even at odd hours of the night, I could speak to the President or an Ambassador in some faraway embassy about sensitive topics. It was a constant reminder that the troubles of the world were never far from home.

At 9:36 on the night of Wednesday, April 25, 2012, the yellow phone rang. It was my Director of Policy Planning and Deputy Chief of Staff Jake Sullivan, calling from his own secure line on the seventh floor of the State Department, where he’d hastily returned from a rare night off. He told me that our embassy in Beijing faced an unexpected crisis and urgently needed direction.

Unbeknownst to us, less than a week earlier, a blind, forty-year-old human rights activist named Chen Guangcheng had escaped from house arrest in Shandong Province by climbing over the wall of his home. He broke his foot but managed to elude the local police assigned to watch him. Leaving his family behind, he set out on a journey hundreds of miles to Beijing with the help of a modern-day Underground Railroad of fellow dissidents and supporters. While in hiding in Beijing he made contact with a Foreign Service officer at the American Embassy who had long ties to the Chinese human rights community. She immediately recognized the seriousness of the situation.

Chen had gained notoriety in China as the “barefoot lawyer,” advocating for the rights of the disabled, helping rural villagers protest illegal land seizures by corrupt local authorities, and documenting abuses of the one-child policy such as forced sterilizations and abortions. Unlike many other high-profile Chinese dissidents, Chen was not a student at an elite university or an urban intellectual. He was a villager himself, poor and self-taught, and the public came to see him as a genuine man of the people. In 2005 he was arrested after filing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of victims of government repression. A local court sentenced him to fifty-one months in prison, supposedly for destroying property and obstructing traffic. It was a blunt miscarriage of justice, shocking even in a country with little rule of law. After serving out his full sentence, he was released into house arrest, surrounded by armed guards and cut off from the outside world.

Now he was injured, on the run, and asking for our help. At dawn in Beijing, two U.S. Embassy officers met in secret with Chen. With Chinese State Security hunting for him, he asked if he could take refuge at the embassy, at least long enough to receive medical attention and devise a new plan. They agreed to relay the request to Washington, where it quickly made its way up the chain. Chen continued to circle the Beijing suburbs in a car, waiting for a response.

A number of factors made this a particularly difficult decision. First there were the logistics. Chen had a broken foot and was a wanted man. If we didn’t act quickly, he would likely be captured. To make matters worse, Chinese security regularly maintained a robust presence outside our embassy. If Chen tried to walk up to the front door, they would surely seize him before we could even unbolt the lock. The only way to get him safely inside would be to send a team out into the streets to quietly pick him up. Bob Wang, our Deputy Chief of Mission in Beijing, estimated that Chen’s chances of getting in on his own were less than 10 percent. He thought it was above 90 percent if we went out and got him. That, however, would certainly increase tensions with the Chinese.

Timing was also a factor. As it happened, I was preparing to depart in five days for Beijing myself, to participate in the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and our Chinese counterparts. It was the culmination of an entire year’s worth of painstaking diplomatic work, and we had a full agenda of important and sensitive issues, including tensions in the South China Sea, provocations from North Korea, and economic concerns like currency valuation and intellectual property theft. If we agreed to help Chen, there was a real chance that the Chinese leaders would be so angry they would cancel the summit. At the very least we could expect much less cooperation on matters of significant strategic importance.

It appeared that I had to decide between protecting one man, albeit a highly sympathetic and symbolic figure, and protecting our relationship with China. On one side of the scale were America’s core values and our status as a beacon of freedom and opportunity; on the other were many of our most urgent security and economic priorities.

As I weighed this decision, I thought of the dissidents who sought refuge in American Embassies in Communist countries during the Cold War. One of them, Cardinal József Mindszenty of Hungary, stayed for fifteen years. In 1989 Fang Lizhi and his wife, Li Shuxian, Chinese physicists and prominent activists during the protests in Tiananmen Square, spent nearly thirteen months in the embassy in Beijing before finally making it to the United States. This legacy hung over the Chen case from the beginning.

I also had in mind a much more recent incident. In February 2012, just two months earlier, a Chinese police chief named Wang Lijun walked into the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, the capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan, looking for help. Until his fall from grace, Wang had been the right-hand man of Bo Xilai, the powerful Communist Party boss of a nearby province. Wang had helped Bo run a vast network of corruption and graft. He eventually claimed to have knowledge of a cover-up of the murder of a British businessman by Bo’s wife. Bo was a colorful figure and a rising star in the national Communist Party, but his spectacular abuses of power, including the alleged wiretapping of President Hu Jintao, unnerved his elders in Beijing. They began investigating both Bo and Wang. Afraid that he would end up like the poisoned Brit, Wang fled to our consulate in Chengdu with a head full of stories.

While he was inside, security forces loyal to Bo surrounded the building. It was a tense moment. Wang Lijun was no human rights dissident, but we couldn’t just turn him over to the men outside; that would effectively have been a death sentence, and the cover-up would have continued. We also couldn’t keep him in the consulate forever. So after asking Wang what he wanted, we reached out to the central authorities in Beijing and suggested that he would voluntarily surrender into their custody if they would listen to his testimony. We had no idea how explosive his story would prove or how seriously Beijing would take it. We agreed to say nothing about the matter, and the Chinese were grateful for our discretion.

Soon the dominoes started to fall. Bo was removed from power, and his wife was convicted of murder. Even the tightest Chinese censorship couldn’t stop this from becoming an enormous scandal, and it shook confidence in the Communist Party’s leadership at a sensitive time. President Hu and Premier Wen were scheduled to hand over power to a new generation of leaders in early 2013. They badly wanted a smooth transition, not a national furor over official corruption and intrigue.

Now, just two months later, we were facing another test, and I knew the Chinese leadership was more on edge than ever.

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