Some activists said they were surprised to hear that U.S. officials had received assurances from the Chinese about Chen's freedom, especially after only six days of negotiations. U.S. officials told human rights activists in briefings Wednesday that they intended to collaborate with private rights groups to make sure that China lived up to its promises to allow Chen's freedom, but they also acknowledged some uncertainty about whether China would make good.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged that uncertainty in a statement, in which she said that making China's promises a reality "is the next crucial task."
An American-based rights activist close to the developments said the United States has some political leverage in trying to hold China to its promises, because Beijing would want to avoid a worldwide outcry over mistreatment of Chen. Yet this activist said there is no real precedent for such a deal. "There just aren't a lot of tools in the toolbox here," said the activist.
Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor who has been advising Chen, said part of the administration's plan was for President Obama to make a public statement of support for the deal, which would help guarantee that China's top leaders would become involved. The U.S. supposition was that if the Chinese didn't live up to their promises and the deal fell through, "the United States, having given him full backing until that moment, would use its influence to have him finally leave the country," Cohen said.
Though U.S. officials insisted that the Chinese had been businesslike and cooperative in the negotiations, China also made known its displeasure at what it saw as foreign meddling again in sovereign issues. Liu Weimin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, declared that the U.S. actions "interfered in the domestic affairs of China," and said Washington should apologize for its "abnormal means" of dealing with the Chen affair.
But the White House was not expected to apologize, particularly in an election year when Republicans foes have repeatedly accused Obama of apologizing too often to foreign powers.
Human rights in China has been an especially tricky political issue for Obama, whose team over the last term has been criticized by both Democrats, such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), and Republicans such as former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton for being insufficiently zealous in supporting activists against the authoritarian Chinese government.
One Republican,Rep. Christopher H. Smith(R-N.J.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs human rights subcommittee, trained his fire on the deal, saying he believed it was "artificial."
"Who will monitor whether he is truly free?" Smith said.
Pierson reported from Beijing and Richter from Washington. Times staff writers Barbara Demick in New York, Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles, Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston and Kathleen Hennessey in Washington contributed to this report.