The story has changed in the past twenty-four hours, but it is important to maintain focus on the central problem in all of this: the PRC government has failed to provide a consistent and fair rule of law and Chen has been brutally victimized, and continues to be brutally victimized, as a result.
We can debate whether the US government has handled this well or not, and whether Chen himself has made tactical errors (and who could blame him if he has, after a year and a half of unremitting pressure and abuse). But those are secondary issues. The core of the matter is the continuing inability of central PRC government officials to recognize or rein in the illegal actions of the Linyi thugs. Either that, or the central Party leadership is in total agreement with the Linyi thugs and supports the use of illegal means to repress citizen activists. They have either failed to provide rule of law or they do not, regardless of their statements to the contrary, really want to provide rule of law. That is the issue.
Ths US government cannot solve this problem. It is not a problem of the US government. Only the political leadership of the PRC government can solve this problem.
Thus far, the US embassy in Beijing has gone above and beyond the call of duty to help Chen. The story of bringing him into the embassy grounds reads like a tale of Cold War espionage. And I, for one, believe that while Chen was in the embassy, the US representatives there made plain that he could have asylum if he wanted it but he did not; he wanted to try to stay in China and continue to press for improvment of the legal system. Perhaps the most reliable source is Jerry Cohen, a man who has worked in and with China for decades on questions of law and the legal system. Chen, while at the embassy, asked for Cohen to advise him, via telephone, and Cohen did. And here was Cohen's understanding as Chen left the embassy:
Cohen said that on Monday night, Chen was undecided and fretful for his family. “I’m very, very fearful. I’m very, very insecure. I’m very uncomfortable,” Cohen said Chen told him on Monday. But throughout the talks, Chen maintained that he wanted to remain in China, according to Cohen and U.S. officials, because he didn’t want to live without his family and felt he could achieve more in China. “Chen is brilliant and to accept asylum and fade away, that wasn’t an appealing option,” Cohen said. “He wants this. He told me in the conversations we had in the last couple of days that he wants the rights of any other citizen.” By Tuesday, Chen was feeling better about the arrangement and by the time he left the embassy he was comfortable with it, Cohen said.
Staying in China necessarily reduced the power of the US government to protect him. The US cannot contravene the sovereignty of the PRC; the US government cannot become an extraterritorial legal guarantor. The US can monitor and pressure and protest; but it cannot shield a PRC citizen from the legal force of his or her own government. Everyone knows this. Thus, the choice to stay in China was a risky one, dependent on how the highest levels of the PRC government would respond. It would be quite easy for that leadership to make certain promises behind closed doors and then renege on them in practice. The US would be in a reactive mode, and would have to calculate what it wanted to give up in order to get the outcome it wanted in Chen's case.
And we know now that Chinese authorities have responded badly. First of all, someone threatened Chen's family. Indeed, the family has been used as a bargaining chip. Initially, Chen was told, while in the embassy, that if he were to seek asylum and leave, he would have to leave his family behind. That was the position of the PRC government. Clearly, that weighed heavily on his mind and shaped his decision to stay. Then, his wife and children were brought to the hospital but were told they could be sent back to Shandong at any time - which in itself is a not-so-veiled threat of physical abuse. When Chen was reunited with his family at the hospital, and his wife told him how fearful they were of being sent back, that is when he changed his decision and stated that he wanted to leave China with his family - an option which the PRC government had not made available in earlier negotiations.
Once again, Chen shows himself to be more of a Confucian than the PRC government. When he finally had a chance to reunite with both of his children, he sought to act in their best interest. It is important to keep in mind that one of the ways the Linyi thugs have pressured him is to break up his family:
"They broke up and hurt Chen Guangcheng's family," Chen's lawyer, Li Jinsong, said Thursday. "It was the local government officials who wouldn't let the son go home because he was getting older and was better able to understand things, and what the local officials most feared was that Chen Guangcheng and his family would be able to communicate with the outside world. So, he was left with his maternal grandmother."
So we should not blame Chen for the rather chaotic change of direction the story has taken. But that change has put him and the US in a weaker position. Quite simply, if the PRC leadership sees that the US values a certain outcome in this case, it will demand something in return. And the fact that this is all happening while high-level negotiations are going on means that the PRC will likely try to link the resolution of the Chen case to other issues. Will they say that Chen and his family can have passports and leave if the US backs off its plan to sell advanced jet fighters to Taiwan? Of course, the US will not allow the Chen case to determine national security and other issues. But the back and forth on this will drag on for a long time.
The bottom line here is what it has long been. If the PRC leadership - Wen Jiabao, Hu Jintao and company - want to treat Chen humanely, they can treat Chen humanely. Up to this point, they have clearly demonstrated that they do not want to treat Chen humanely. They have chosen inhumanity. And that choice creates a systemic problem, as Mencius noted:
...only the Humane are fit for high position: when the Inhumane hold high position, evil is sown among the people. When the Way isn't in a leader's thoughts, officials stop fostering the law.... (4A.1)
That's the core issue of the Chen Guangcheng case...