Chen Guangcheng: The Hollow Core of a Press Manipulation Presidency

I live in the Pacific time zone, a full three hours behind the news makers and breakers on the east coast. I woke up early yesterday, by my time, and found an apparent great story occupying my Twitter stream: Chinese dissident and activist Chen Guangcheng had not only, through the miracle that is United States benevolence, been sheltered in the US Embassy (as had been theorized) from his daring blind man’s escape from house arrest, but had been represented in a breathtakingly humanitarian deal with the oppressive Chinese government that resulted in his proper medical care, reunion with his family and a safe and fulfilling life from here on out.

The proverbial “and everybody lived happily ever after”.

By the time I got my second eye open, and focused, I realized what I was reading something more akin to a Highlights Magazine “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” puzzle.

And so it was. What a difference a day makes. The initial report I read this morning at the source Washington Post article appears to be pushed aside from their website, supplanted by a more honest report.

The first report at the WaPo depicted an incoming call to the reporter from US Ambassador to China, Gary Locke:

What I was not prepared for was when Locke said, “I’m here with Chen Guangcheng. Do you speak Chinese? Hold on.”

And then passed the phone over.

“Hello, this is Chen Guangcheng,” came a matter-of-fact, almost cheerful voice.

I introduced myself in halting Chinese, using my Chinese name and the Chinese name for The Washington Post. I asked how Chen was, and where. I asked him to speak slowly, to make sure I could understand.

“Washington Post?” Chen repeated, his voice sounding generally happy. Chen said he was fine and was in the car headed to the hospital, Chaoyang Hospital. He repeated the name slowly, three times.

And that was it. Chen handed the phone back to the ambassador, who said they were stuck in traffic, but promised a full briefing later.

Following the old “two source” rule for journalists, I definitely had my story. Chen was indeed under U.S. diplomatic protection, as we and other news outlets had been reporting. He was now leaving the embassy on his way to the hospital. In a vehicle with the American ambassador. The first word would go out soon after that, in a blast to our overnight editors, and via my Twitter account.

I learned later that I was just one in a succession of calls U.S. diplomats made from the van at Chen’s request — they also spoke to Chen’s lawyer and to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, recently arrived in Beijing for an important two-day summit.

That was the “happily ever after” story which was too good to be true.

It was indeed too good to be true. A mere twelve hours later, and even the Washington Post reports a far different tale:

The blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng left the refuge of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for a hospital on Wednesday, but he was quickly cordoned off by Chinese police and reportedly seized by misgivings about his decision, as an apparent diplomatic triumph risked dissolving into a potentially damaging episode in U.S.-China relations.

After four days of secret negotiations, U.S. diplomats on Wednesday initially touted then later scrambled to defend their role in forging an agreement that they said contained extraordinary Chinese promises to allow Chen — a self-taught lawyer known for criticizing Chinese policies on abortion — to move his family to Beijing, where he would begin a new life as a university student.

Chinese officials, by contrast, broke their official silence on Chen by firing a broadside complaining about U.S. interference in China’s internal affairs. The Foreign Ministry demanded an apology, which State Department officials declined to give.
But activists’ fears over Chen’s fate mounted, and they expressed increasing alarm — fueled by a series of Twitter updates — that what seemed like a human rights victory was spiraling quickly into a worst-case scenario.

Chen was no longer under U.S. protection, they noted, and it was not clear whether he had left on his own free will or under coercion. While U.S. officials said they had been promised access to Chen in the hospital, Britain’s Channel 4 news quoted a conversation with him in which he seemed confused and upset that no American diplomats were around.

“Nobody from the [U.S.] embassy is here. I don’t understand why. They promised to be here,” Channel 4 quoted Chen as saying.

Bob Fu, president of the advocacy group ChinaAid, said he was concerned that “the U.S. government has abandoned Chen” and that the Chinese government is “using his family as a hostage.”

Quite a difference, no? And that, quite frankly, appears to be the sanitized version from the Washington Post, who has a dozen eggs on their face. But nowhere near the eggage the Obama Administration, and State Department, has on their collective face.

Hillary Clinton, and the State Department under President Obama, have been far from perfect, to be sure; but, overall, one of the stronger, if not strongest, departments in Obama’s cabinet. But this is way ugly, and ought to, by all rights, leave a very permanent mark. It is a stain fairly earned in every sense of the word. Hard to imagine a more cravenly constructed pile of PR bullshit since the Jessica Lynch affair. Yet here it is in living steaming brownish color. All painted with Madame Secretary conveniently in Beijing, China. Awkward!

Such are the vagaries of policy by press manipulation though. The ass biting incidents such as the aforementioned Jessica Lynch, the dishonor of the man that was Pat Tillman, to the broken promises of Barack Obama on warrantless wiretapping and war crime accountability, to the false hope of Cairo, to the greasy and uncomfortable election politicization of the SEAL’s takedown of Osama bin Laden a year ago, to Chen Guangcheng.

There has been precious little return on the false hype from the Obama Administration; instead, a wave of disappointment. And the press is, without saying, all too willing to serve as the tool of the string pullers in power, regardless of which political faction it may be at any given time. It is who they are, it is what they do. As Glenn Greenwald said recently of the willing press:

They aren’t nearly so substantive as to be driven by any sort of belief or ideology or anything like that. Their religion is the worship of political power and authority (or, as Jay Rosen says, their religion is the Church of the Savvy). Royal court courtiers have long competed with one another to curry favor with the King and his minions in exchange for official favor, and this is just that dynamic. Political power is what can give them their treats — their “exclusive” interviews and getting tapped on their grateful heads to get secret documents and invited to White House functions and being allowed into the sacred Situation Room – so it’s what they revere and serve.

That is exactly the bogus and counterfeit relationship between Presidency and press that led to the unquestioning, and ultimately embarrassing, breathless buy in by the Washington Post on the spoon fed horse manure from the Obama Administration’s Chinese Ambassador, Gary Locke, on Chen Guangcheng.

It is all a media manipulation now, and the media do not care who, or which side, are doing the manipulating. Presidency by press release. It doesn’t matter if it is real or fabricated, it is all good if it sells. The distressing thing is that it does, indeed, sell.

18 replies
  1. emptywheel says:

    Dunno if I agree with this.

    The Admin DOES have egg on their face. But international negotiations are not easy, particularly when we’re negotiating with our bankster in anticipation of what I imagine is a VERY IMPORTANT meeting (between Hillary and TurboTaxTimmeh).

    They’ve reengaged, which means they’re willing to push further on this.

  2. allan says:

    The photo of Chen, Harold Koh and Gary Locke all beaming at the camera will be a classic,
    right up there with the `Mission Accomplished’ shot.

  3. MadDog says:

    OT – In less than an hour (they say 9 AM EST, but I’m thinking they meant EDT), a bunch of the OBL documents captured during the Seal mission to kill OBL will be released as promised by John Brennan in his speech earlier this past week at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.

    I’m guessing that some of these will be the ones that the US government already leaked to their WaPo mouthpiece, David Ignatius.

  4. bmaz says:

    @emptywheel: I would have agreed with that if the State folks had maintained their locked lip radio silence and not have tripped over themselves arranging media calls before they got the job done, and in a manner that was sure to embarrass and piss off the Chinese. The painting is that the media calls were “at Chen’s request”, maybe that is true to some extent, I don’t know. But they did not have to facilitate all that so opportunistically knowing what was at stake. They would have been much better off recording some messages photographing and filming the process to be able to later document appropriately, but keeping the deal under some wraps to actually get it done with an adversary famous for “wanting to save face”.

  5. bmaz says:

    I would also add, that I would love nothing more for this to really have at least a somewhat happy ending. I guess the flip side of what I argued initially is that all the international press attention may box the Chinese in some as to how they treat Chen and family. Or not. Time will tell, but it will be interesting to see.

  6. rkilowatt says:

    A play by the usual cast of characters for privileges and then more privileges.
    The Chen fellow? He’s a player, too. An effective one. Not a victim.

  7. Kal says:

    As I recall, yesterday Chen was by himself in the Embassy. He wanted to be united with his family was the story I heard, so he took the deal.

    Then he was united so could speak for them all instead of himself alone. He immediately changed his story to try and get them all out together.

    If that is correct he played it very well indeed.

  8. P J Evans says:

    I was wondering how someone who’s blind and under house arrest could even get to the embassy without a lot of help (starting with evading the guards that I would expect to be around the house and the embassy).

  9. ryanwc says:


    There’s a difference between a blunder and as you call it, the cravenly constructed PR pile of bullshit of the Jessica Lynch affair.

    Are you asserting they didn’t believe they had an agreement that the Chinese would treat Chen well, but still led Chen and the press to believe they did? That seems unlikely to me.

    Among other things, I could easily see them picturing Chen as a canny survivor in an oppressive regime. When he agreed to the deal (and from what I’ve looked at, his friends seem to offer additional sources for the idea that he agreed), they may have felt ill-placed to question his judgment. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that there were other questions to ask, other information that it might have been useful to give him.

    But I see a big difference between such regrettable but understandable mistakes and a mere PR campaign. I find it hard to accept putting this, Jessica Lynch and Pat TIllman in the same sentence.

  10. bmaz says:

    @ryanwc: I have no idea what “they thought”; with “they” referring to Gary Locke and the State Dept as comprised in the embassy in Beijing. That said, my guess is it was no blind operation in this age of communication and data transfer. And that is especially so in light of the fact that SOS Clinton was going to be/was on the ground both there and at the time. I also think this was nowhere near random by the Chen fellow and that he gamed this out superbly to play the State Dept and Clinton. If I were Clinton, I might admire his chutzpah, but might not be exactly thrilled with the dude and his opportunistic antics.

    All that said, my real issue is not the fact of any of this, but the noisy PR element of it where both Chen and the State Dept, because they did not have to facilitate it if they did not want to, were basically dialing for dollars from the car on the way to the hospital from the embassy. There was not a chance in hell that such would ever be considered anything other than insulting and a betrayal of the bargain, by both Chen and the US, by the Chinese. I do not see that whatever agreement was made with the Chinese included a fucking call to the Washington Post to brag to the world on the way to completing the bargain.

    That is what truly bugs the shit out of me. But, hey, it is an “election year”, so what the fuck….

  11. ondelette says:

    I’m having a real difficulty understanding what you’re trying to say, bmaz. Are you trying to say the Obama administration or the Clnton state department manipulated the Chen affair as a press moment like Jessica Lynch? Are you fucking crazy?

    They and Chen got played by the Chinese government. They can’t do anything unless Chen formally asks for asylum. He wanted to stay in China. As soon as he left the embassy, he knew he’d made a mistake. He went there on this timing because he and his network, not the press, not the administration, knew Hillary Clinton was there. Do you speak Chinese? You can hear some of what he said in the al Jazeera broadcast before the translator overs. I wish I could listen to it un-interrupted because he speaks quite clearly, he isn’t hard to understand at all. He’s getting nailed for this.

  12. Bill H says:

    Even if he asks for asylum, if he does so at an American embassy on Chinese soil there are constraints on what the embassy can do. Emasssies are established with agreements that they will not use their presence to interfere with the internal affairs of the host nation, including but not limited to spying. The host nation, in return, grants guarantees of safety, including diplomatic immunity. Using an embassy as a station of an underground railroad would certainly be a breach and create huge diplomatic issues.

  13. ondelette says:

    @Bill H:

    Oh, no. He can in fact ask for asylum on the embassy grounds, and they can give it to him. Beyond that is where it gets sticky, unless he wants to stay at the embassy forever. There have been and currently are cases of people who’ve been at embassies for years.

    But if he hasn’t even asked for it, they aren’t really entitled to start pushing their weight around. And he didn’t ask for it, and didn’t want to ask for it, according to his friends, the embassy staff, and all the interlocutors.

  14. ryanwc says:

    And now he’s allowed to leave the country to study.

    If this was the Obama administration’s Jessica Lynch incident, it’s actually a sign of how far we’ve come since the Bush administration.

  15. bmaz says:

    @ryanwc: I would have to agree to some extent, this seems to be working out rather well. I will retract some of my characterization and admit I was wrong. The one area where I don’t, however, is still what I said in the second paragraph of my earlier response to you at comment 11 above. Irrespective of whether this ends up working smashingly well or not, the little noisy victory lap in the car on the way to the hospital vis a vis the press seems ill advised to be kind.

    That criticism aside though, hat’s off if this really works out the way it is currently stated. If so, the State Dept has my full apology. It is still pretty early though, and the whole thing has a weird feel to it. I would love to know the real and full story from the start, and I doubt we ever will. The Chinese sure have acted in measured, calm and shockingly cooperative ways – twice now – in dealing with this. I wonder why, because this is not their history on such things. I wonder what else is in play we are not seeing.

    Oh well, I will take the apparent good news and give congratulations until there is reason to do otherwise.

  16. ryan says:

    I certainly follow your logic about the press calls. And you may be right.

    However, it’s not clear to me yet whether the press calls were counterproductive. We know little about the Chinese reaction. The pressure on Chen’s wife predates the American phone calls, so the biggest factor in Chen’s change of heart seems to have been independent of the phone calls. Once the Chinese had conceded publicly that he had been mishandled in his home province, they’d conceded everything, and it must have been clear to them that the Americans would get credit, particularly in American papers. They’re not blind to the media environment of the rest of the civilized world.

    And I think talk of how the Chinese are our bankers and all the power they supposedly hold over us, and talk of how we don’t live up to our reputation and our self-image, can blind us to how powerful that image (and the imperfect reality behind it) remains.

    I’d guess that the NYTimes is closer to the heart of the Chinese reaction in their piece yesterday pointing out how interesting it is that in the last two months, two people whose places in the Chinese system are entirely different have fled to an American embassy (actually, I think the secret policeman fled to a consulate, but same thing for my purposes …)

    That is a mighty powerful statement about what many Chinese think about the US. The question of how well the US lives up to that standard, though interesting to you and me, isn’t entirely relevant here. The Chinese government needed this to die down very quickly.

    It’s also possible that they were testing US resolve once Chen was out o f the embassy. In that case, the press calls may actually have been one thing that showed the Chinese the stakes were in fact high for the US, and that State couldn’t let Chen slip back into oppression. Press calls may be self-serving, but they also help raise public expectations, and those calls made it a little tougher for State not to endorse Chen’s changed plans.

  17. bmaz says:

    @ryan: No, I agree, we just don’t know. I am chastised and humbled enough, however, to admit my early take was too hasty and too based on early info. Guilty. And maybe quite wrong.

    I will still, cautiously, take issue with the PR show that, right or wrong, appears to have occurred with the dedicated help of the Dept. of State on the way to the hospital. If your narrative is not locked down solid, that can – and will – always bite you in the ass. When it does not is the exception, not the rule. So are my learnings anyway…

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