Staying would still be the best option for Chen and family
By now, many people would agree that blind activist Chen Guangcheng's odyssey to freedom contains more than enough suspense and fast-moving twists and turns to make a Hollywood blockbuster.
It started on a moonless night on April 22 when Chen scaled a wall surrounding his modest home in Shandong and set off on a desperate flight in which he said he fell more than 200 times before being picked up by one of his supporters.
After being driven to Beijing and hiding in different apartments, Chen's decision to seek shelter at the American embassy elevated his case to the highest international level, with a tinge of spy intrigue of car changing and chasing. A report in The New York Times last week detailed how Chen's car moved into an alley, an embassy vehicle drew alongside, and the lawyer was pulled into the US vehicle. On the way to the embassy, the Americans evaded two vehicles, presumably full of Chinese state security agents.
Then intense negotiations between Chinese and American officials over Chen's fate followed, resulting in a dramatic announcement that Chen would stay in China to pursue legal studies before leaving the embassy on Wednesday. On Thursday, however, Chen apparently changed his mind and made a dramatic plea to the overseas media and some US congressmen that he wanted to leave China and accused US officials of abandoning him at Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing.
That set off another round of intense talks between the Chinese and American officials, resulting in a tentative statement on Friday from Beijing that Chen could seek permission to study abroad, along with his family. All this occurred against the background of bilateral talks between the top leaders and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
Now Chen is still holed up in the hospital under tight security, although it seems very likely that he will be allowed to leave the country soon.
Chen's departure from the country could be the most viable ending under such circumstances. But it could have had a much better and more meaningful ending, with far-reaching implications for China's rights movement and even political development, if Chen was able to stay on the mainland as he originally wanted. That did not happen, mainly because of the Americans' gigantic bungling at the last minute.
According to news reports, the American officials left the hospital as soon as they dropped Chen there on Wednesday. One explanation was that the officials were very tired and went home to sleep. But that did not prevent them from posting online a happy Chen embracing and holding hands with the US officials during a farewell.
None of the Americans at the time seemed to think it was a bad idea to leave the blind activist alone in the hospital on the first night after he had spent so many high-wired and tense days on the run and in the US embassy, although other people would see it much differently.
Indeed, Jerome Cohen, a veteran expert on Chinese law who counselled Chen for hours, told the South China Morning Post last week that Chen was in a very susceptible frame of mind at the time.
He suggested that Chen's conversations with his supporters, mostly other human rights advocates, immediately after leaving US protection, may have contributed to his about-turn.
Those people included Teng Biao and Zeng Jinyan, who are constantly harassed by the police. Of course, they had Chen's safety and well-being in their hearts when they advised him to leave the country.
But Chen's initial decision to stay on the mainland and live a more meaningful life was still the best option for him and his family members. While concerns over his well-being if he chose to stay on the mainland are valid, it is very unlikely that the mainland authorities would punish him for what he did, not least because he became the focus of attention by the US government and the international media.
Moreover, his mere presence on the mainland would remain a lightning rod for the nation's rights movement and those reformist officials pushing for the rule of law. The fact that the central government allowed him to move to Tianjin and study law, according to an initial agreement, could set the stage for an official investigation into the local officials in Shandong who were responsible for jailing Chen and constantly harassing him afterwards. Indeed, many mainlanders and officials have great sympathy for Chen's case.
Chen now insists he will not seek political asylum in the US and will only spend some time there studying and recuperating. But once he leaves the country, he is likely to be marginalised like most other dissidents who went before him. That is exactly what the hardliners in the central government - and those corrupt officials in Shandong - want to see.