Now, both Clinton's State Department and Obama's White House are eager to take credit. Clinton's advisors say it was part of a calculated plan that involved years of the secretary's "unsexy" diplomacy. The White House contends that it's in charge, with national security advisor Thomas Donilon and Vice President Joe Biden, who recently played host to Chinese heir apparent Xi Jinping, taking the lead. "Kurt Campbell will say he's the author of the strategic shift," said the Obama advisor. "But Tom Donilon is the author of our China policy."
By the time the Chen case exploded, though, the White House was little in evidence. The blame, or credit, would be all for Clinton.
WHEN THEY FIRST MET in 2009, Dai Bingguo famously greeted Hillary Clinton with the undiplomatic observation that she was "much prettier and much younger in person" than he had expected. ("We're going to get along just fine," she laughingly responded.) But this time he had more than just pleasantries. It was Wednesday evening, just after the small formal dinner meant to kick off the strategic dialogue. The meal went well enough, filled with chitchat over Dai's granddaughter and the two leaders exchanging 30,000-foot views of a world in which the rising power of China has to coexist with the established American dominance. But later, after the roast duck and hand-pulled noodles, the formal tea and the handing over of gifts (Clinton got a large decorative plate -- with a portrait of herself painted in the center), the two principals retreated to a private session in a villa that had once been the quarters of a 16th-century Chinese empress. There, Clinton heard a litany of Chinese complaints over the Chen case; she was left saying, in essence, what do you expect? As she recalled it in our interview, "I said, 'Look, you know, we have to follow our values. You know that. You've dealt with us for many years.'"
At the time, it seemed a sort of ritual exchange. Just minutes before Clinton left for the dinner, her aides had announced what appeared to be an end to the drama: Chen, they told the press traveling with Clinton, had been driven to Chaoyang Hospital, where he'd been reunited with his wife and two children. The Chinese authorities, they said, had promised Chen that he could live safely outside his village and study law at a prestigious Chinese university. The American negotiators were teary-eyed and emotional. "We think we have helped to secure for him a better future," said one.
But there was a problem: Chen was already having second thoughts. Indeed, by the time Clinton and Dai had their exchange, Chen's doubts were being broadcast far and wide by his supporters on Twitter. "The minute we saw that, it was a five-alarm fire," one aide said. Minutes after Clinton returned to her hotel from dinner, the Associated Press published an interview with Chen in which he said he now wanted to go to America. Even Chen's comment to Clinton in broken English on a borrowed telephone that afternoon that he wanted to "kiss" her was now being denied. Clinton's team huddled in her top-floor suite in the Marriott and broke the news to her: The hard-won deal appeared to be off.
Making matters worse, the disciplined Clinton team seemed like it had bobbled the ball. They spun and argued and denied that Chen had changed his mind for hours after it was apparent that he had. ("Sheer nonsense," read one of their testy emails to a reporter late that night.) Worse, they had left Chen at the hospital with no reassuring American presence and couldn't even manage to connect with him that night by cell phone after his worries became public. From 10 p.m. on, an embassy official dialed Chen's number every 20 minutes, but never got through -- even though Chen managed to speak to many of his activist supporters and international news organizations, from Newsweek and Reuters to the Washington Post and New York Times.
By the time the American diplomats acknowledged what had happened and went back to cut a new deal for Chen, the Chinese were in no mood to talk. In the meantime, Clinton herself was pulled away by the hours of unrelated meetings that had brought her to Beijing in the first place. The two sides had used the dialogue to schedule an intensive series of small discussions with Clinton and Dai on the most pressing -- and divisive -- issues between the countries, from thorny nuclear talks with Iran and what to do about North Korea's erratic new leader to the bloody crackdown in Syria and the mounting crisis between the Philippines, a major U.S. ally, and China over disputed waters in the South China Sea. It was quite a performance by both sides; no one mentioned Chen. "This was all taking place in the eye of the storm," said one Clinton aide.