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Behind Twists of Diplomacy in the Case of a Chinese Dissident

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WASHINGTON — Over two days of meetings with China’s leaders in Beijing last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had not uttered a word about Chen Guangcheng as her aides arranged to transfer the blind Chinese dissident from the United States Embassy to a hospital, only to have the plan unexpectedly blow up. Then, last Friday, she finally broached the subject with China’s senior foreign policy official, Dai Bingguo. Mr. Chen, she said, should go to the United States after all.

The Chinese were furious. They considered Mrs. Clinton’s request a betrayal of American assurances made during 30 hours of talks. China had insisted on absolute secrecy, demanding no public confirmation that Mr. Chen was in the embassy by any Americans, even members of Congress, whom the Obama administration kept in the dark.

“I don’t want to talk to him anymore,” Cui Tiankai, the vice foreign minister, erupted after Mrs. Clinton intervened, gesturing toward Kurt M. Campbell, an assistant secretary of state and a crucial negotiator.

The confrontation was a pivotal moment in a diplomatic drama replete with unanticipated twists, threats and counterthreats, and at times comical intrigue. Mr. Campbell, for example, took to sneaking out of his hotel in Beijing through an entrance by the garbage bins to avoid public attention.

The Chinese security apparatus, meanwhile, aggressively tapped and blocked phone calls by embassy officials, with an agent at one point brazenly dialing into a conversation between Mr. Chen and his wife on the cellphone of the deputy chief of mission, Robert S. Wang. The Americans, fearing that the Chinese would restrict access to Mr. Chen’s hospital, even considered disguising an employee as a nurse to gain entry.

Mrs. Clinton’s intervention ultimately resulted in a second arrangement to allow Mr. Chen to study at New York University but not to seek asylum, which the Chinese considered an affront. Under terms that have not been disclosed, Mr. Chen is expected to leave in days. The outcome, said several officials who recounted the story, reflected a maturing relationship now able to weather a fraught diplomatic entanglement. The officials would discuss diplomatic talks only on the condition of anonymity.

“At a strategic level I think the two sides will quietly take some confidence from this,” a senior administration official said.

The agreement came at the cost of what the officials said was considerable strain on both sides, and it could still fall apart, though Mr. Chen said Tuesday that the authorities had accepted his application to travel abroad. Yet the frenzied days and sleepless nights seem to have averted a major embarrassment for the administration and defused a crisis that threatened to upend relations between the two countries.

Mr. Chen’s case highlighted what the Americans view as an intensifying struggle within the Chinese leadership between hard-liners and reformers. At one point during the talks, the State Department’s legal adviser, Harold H. Koh, encountered officials from China’s powerful Ministry of State Security arguing in the hallway with their counterparts from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, saying Mr. Chen should be punished, not coddled by the Americans.

At the center of it was Mr. Chen, who after his harrowing escape from Chinese security officials and arrival at the embassy experienced wild mood swings — crying at times — even as he bargained with the cunning of the lawyer he had taught himself to be.

Once released to the hospital, he used three preprogrammed cellphones provided by the Americans to press his demands in public. He did not want asylum, he said, but rather an investigation by Chinese central government authorities into his mistreatment.

The use of technology — posts on Twitter, a dramatic call to a Congressional hearing — boxed in the Chinese but also left Americans scrambling. After speaking to his lawyer and his wife, Mr. Chen abruptly changed his mind and decided he could not stay in China. At that point the American officials were in the dark about his shift.

“It took us a little while — we were already unbelievably exhausted — to find our bearings,” the senior administration official said of Mr. Chen’s change of heart. What complicated the diplomacy was the fact that the Chinese considered the very notion of negotiations over a Chinese citizen unacceptable. They refused to make any binding commitments to the Americans, exposing the administration to criticism once Mr. Chen left the embassy. Even now, there is no official agreement, but simply a series of “understandings.”

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