By Julian Pecquet and Amie Parnes - 05/03/12 09:45 PM EDT
Chen Guangcheng’s daring escape to the U.S. embassy turned into a major political headache for President Obama on Thursday as Republicans accused the administration of naively handing the blind human rights activist back to Chinese authorities.
The administration as early as Wednesday hoped to have scored a diplomatic coup with a deal that appeared to salvage high-stakes negotiations with China on Syria and global trade.
Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said it was apparent “our embassy failed to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would have assured the safety of Mr. Chen and his family.”
“If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom and it’s a day of shame for the Obama Administration,” Romney said.
House Republicans vowed to get answers from the Obama administration.
“Next week,” Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said during an emergency hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, “I will look to convene another hearing of this commission on Chen in order to take testimony from the Obama administration witnesses and to get some answers.”
Chen arrived at the embassy last week, just days before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner were to meet with Chinese officials for the U.S.-China Economic and Strategic Dialogue that started Thursday.
Embassy officials say Chen left the embassy of his own volition to be reunited with his family and get treated for injuries sustained during his escape from house arrest. He now says U.S. diplomats pressured him to leave and that Chinese officials threatened his family.
White House press secretary Jay Carney pushed back at that suggestion on Thursday, insisting U.S. officials put no pressure on the dissident and that Chen did not ask for asylum while at the U.S. embassy.
“All of our actions have been aimed at putting Mr. Chen in the best possible position to achieve his goals,” Carney said.
He noted that Chen has now changed his view on where he wants to be, and Carney said the U.S. is looking to take the next steps based on Chen’s goals.
The situation on the ground in China is far from clear.
U.S. diplomats have not been able to see Chen since dropping him off at a Chinese hospital on Wednesday, Chen told the executive committee via telephone. In that surprise call, Chen again expressed his wish for a face-to-face meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
China's foreign ministry has responded with outrage, demanding that the U.S. apologize for harboring Chen.
Observers said the U.S. and China will both be looking for a way out of the diplomatic fight that allows both sides to save face.
“It's hard to play them in a way that makes you look heroic,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. “You want to resolve it in a way that reflects American values of human rights but you don't want it to be a cause celebre because it washes away your ability to deal with other issues. And since China will be the principal bilateral relationship with the United States, it has to be handled carefully.”
Jillson said he expected the situation to quickly be resolved given the two nations' mutual dependence.
The two countries are tied at the hip economically – China is America's second-largest trading partner and is the largest single holder of U.S. government debt – and China's support is needed to get anything done in the UN.
“While human rights are critical interest to the U.S. and we want to see the government treat all its citizens well,” he said, “the administration knows that it's a decades-long work in progress and they have economic issues and other pressing issues that are the first priority.”
Chen's own history is another complicating factor.
The self-taught lawyer was somewhat of a folk hero a decade ago when he fought on behalf of people with disabilities and farmers whose land was confiscated for big developments.
But he incured the government's wrath when he filed a class-action lawsuit against officials who perform involuntary abortions and sterilizations in the name of the country's single-child policy, eventually serving a 51-month prison sentence for disrupting public order.
The policy is a central tenet of the Chinese government, Reggie Littlejohn of Women's Rights Without Frontiers testified at Thursday's hearing, and is completely incompatible with U.S. notions of human rights.
Obama and Clinton have so far declined to address the issue while U.S. diplomats in Beijing seek a resolution. The president is under tremendous pressure however to strike a deal with the Chinese to allow Chen to come to the U.S. now that the activist has asked for asylum for him and his family.
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) - a potential running mate for Romney – promised to introduce a resolution next week “expressing support for Chen and calling on the Chinese government to end the persecution of human rights activists and their families.”
And some conservative Republicans made it clear Thursday that they relish a fight with China.
“America missed an opportunity in Tiananmen (in 1989),” Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said during Thursday's hearing. “Will this administration, too, fail to seize a historic moment?”
Democrats insisted the controversy was unlikely to hurt Obama in the fall.
Steve Elmendorf, a veteran presidential campaign aide, said he doesn't see the Chen situation having any “real impact” in November.
“I don't see regular voters paying much attention,” he said. “For people who are in Washington, it's an interesting story and says something about our tension with the Chinese. But I don't think that plays out in Ohio and Michigan and Nevada.”