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Media Conference Call: Tensions in the U.S.-China Relationship

Speaker: Jerome A. Cohen, CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia Studies for Asia Studies, Co-director of New York University School of Law's U.S.-Asia Law Institute
Presider: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 2, 2012
Council on Foreign Relations

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BERNARD GWERTZMAN: Greetings. Welcome to our call-in show. And we have a lot of news to talk about today.

And we're lucky to have as the speaker Professor Jerome A. Cohen, who's probably the leading expert on Chinese law in this country. He's worked in China. He speaks fluent mandarin. And he's been writing his head off about the human rights problems in China for many years.

And I'm going to launch the first question, which is on the news, which just happened in the last several hours, this -- Jerry -- Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident who had fled house arrest and somehow miraculously, with the help of his supporters, ended up in the American embassy in Beijing. And the coincidence in timing was fortuitous because Secretary of State Clinton and Mr. Geithner, the Treasury secretary, were on their way to China and they're there now for these annual security and economic talks.

And a deal apparently was struck with the Chinese government allowing him to leave the embassy, get medical help at the hospital and then to be transferred to another city in China where he'll be able to study and live with his family.

Can you fill in some details on this?

JEROME COHEN: Yes. And there are many details that remain to be filled in.

This is one of the most daring, creative gambles we've seen in U.S.-China relations since they were established with the People's Republic. We don't know how it's going to work out. We think it's better than any of the other options, and so does Chen.

The man has been under enormous pressure. You can imagine, after seven years of captivity, this nightmarish escape, knocking around, hiding night after night for three nights in Beijing from the police, marvelously escaping them too, and then getting into the U.S. embassy to be confronted by almost around-the-clock discussions about what he should do and facing the option of staying in the embassy a long time, somewhere between the year that Fang Lizhi spent waiting for release fro the United States and the 15 years that Cardinal Mindszenty spent in our Budapest embassy waiting for release, without his family, isolated.

That's not an attractive alternative. If he got out sooner, go to the U.S., he would disappear soon into the great maw, the way all the other people -- dissidents who preceded him did in China, becoming totally ineffective in America; not an attractive prospect for a brilliant man who has courageously fought to bring the rule of law in practice to China. It would mean sort of giving up after 40 years.

On the other side was this option with all its risks, putting his head back into the mouth of the dragon he just escaped from. But on the basis of very detailed if frenetically negotiated -- (chuckles) -- arrangements with the Chinese, hoping that every day we can put flesh on the bare bones of the understanding that will lead to a positive role for him -- not just reunification with his family, not just an opportunity for his cherished goal to be achieved of studying law -- he's always had to do a very basic, primitive study of law at home with some books that I bought him about seven, eight years ago. This would be a real opportunity.

But he wants more than that. He wants -- as he told me in conversations we've had in the last couple of days, he wants the rights of an ordinary citizen. What's been promised, apparently, is he'll have the same status as other law students. And we know what that means. There'll be certain restrictions, but rather vague. And what restrictions he'll be under with respect to talking to friends, making public statements, taking part in pro bono legal activities, writing an opinion on one legal question or another, remains to be seen.

GWERTZMAN: Now let me just interrupt. So -- now you said you've spoken to him in the last several days. Were you part of this negotiation with the United States government and the Chinese government?

COHEN: I was dragged into it totally unexpectedly on -- what was it?; today's Wednesday -- Monday morning. I got a call, and I had a two-and-a-half-hour conversation, first with Harold Koh, our distinguished legal adviser and human rights expert; then with Ambassador Locke, and then with Kurt Campbell, our very able assistant secretary of State.

And after about an hour-and-a-half with them, I had an hour with Chen Guangcheng -- first time I've talked to him since, oh, I think the end of 2005. And I was happy to say -- to note that he sounded just the same. It's like we have never had any absence in our conversation.

GWERTZMAN: That's fascinating. You were speaking obviously in Mandarin to each other.

COHEN: Mandarin, yes.

GWERTZMAN: Yes. And --

COHEN: He speaks very clear Mandarin, fortunately. And we had no trouble communicating.

GWERTZMAN: Right, right.

(Cross talk.)

COHEN: Then I had another conversation with Harold and Kurt, and then with Chen, yesterday morning for two hours.

GWERTZMAN: Now were they asking you your advice on Chinese law, or --

COHEN: Harold is a very careful human rights lawyer. He wanted to be sure that Chen had an opportunity to talk over the pros and cons of these difficult choices with someone in whom -- in whom he had confidence. So he'd have some independent counsel, because otherwise it's a pretty coercive environment. You're locked up. These guys have somehow control over you.

It was an uncomfortable kind of resemblance to the situation that many people are in in China. You get into incommunicado detention. You need access to independent counsel. Harold saw that and without any notice called me because Chen asked for me. And --

GWERTZMAN: I see. It's fascinating.

COHEN: Chen said I'm the only one he trusts.

GWERTZMAN: That's fascinating. And I must say --

COHEN: Yes, it is interesting. And I'm flattered by it. We have been good friends, although necessarily separated for a long time.

GWERTZMAN: So as part of this arrangement, where will he move to?

COHEN: Where was he moved to?

GWERTZMAN: No, where will he live?

COHEN: Oh. Well, that hasn't been totally nailed down, in public at least. But --

GWERTZMAN: There's an article in The New York Times just out saying he would --

COHEN: Says what?

GWERTZMAN: -- that he was going to -- I'm trying to find the place --

COHEN: Tianjin? You see, Chinese offered seven different places --

GWERTZMAN: I see.

COHEN: -- each of which was outside of Beijing or Shanghai, but some of them in major cities, Tianjin, nearby Beijing and Nanjing, not too far from Shanghai. Each of those places has a good institution for disabled people, especially the blind.

GWERTZMAN: Mmm hmm.

COHEN: And the Chinese have indicated that, in the first year out, they can arrange for him to study law together with his family. His wife will have to study with him; she reads to him all the time. And she herself is needless to say now very interested in law.

GWERTZMAN: Yeah. The article in the Times says Tianjin.

COHEN: That's it. Well --

GWERTZMAN: An industrial port city east of Beijing.

COHEN: That's right. And I hope it will be there, because that's a good place and very close to Beijing, as I indicated.

GWERTZMAN: Right.

COHEN: And you see, in order to give him some adequate introduction to formal study of Chinese law, this blind institute is going to have to coordinate with a law school. And Tianjin has some good law schools, including Nankai University. And I'm sure he'll do a first year of study there.

GWERTZMAN: All right. I'm going to stop us now, because I think the -- we have many people online who are dying to ask you a question or two. So I'm going to throw it open now to the questions from the audience.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, at this time, the floor is open for your questions. (Gives queuing instructions.)

GWERTZMAN: Are there any questions?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. We're waiting for the people to queue up. It'll be just a second. Our first question comes from Jay Newton-Small with Time Magazine.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat. There's a AP story out right now where he has told the Associated Press that U.S. officials relayed a message to him that Chinese authority -- authorities were threatening to have his wife beaten to death if he did not leave the U.S. embassy and that he is now seeking asylum together with his family. Do you have any response to this? He -- and he told them this from his bed -- in a phone call from his bed in Beijing.

COHEN: Does this report say that U.S. officials reported that Chen said this?

QUESTIONER: No. It said -- he told -- Chen told the Associated Press in a phone call interview from his bed in Beijing in the Beijing hospital that U.S. officials told him that Chinese authorities were threatening to beat his wife to death if he did not leave the American embassy and that he is now seeking asylum together with his family.

COHEN: I don't know anything about that report, except I heard that a friend of his wife this morning, our time, reported that she had been told by the wife while the wife apparently was still in captivity that if he didn't -- that if he didn't stay in China, that she could be killed.

I had never heard that report until just an hour ago, and I don't know when Chen heard that report. I don't know that U.S. officials have heard that report. I do know he was told that if he chooses to stay in the embassy, that the Chinese authorities were very unlikely to allow him to do so with his family.

You see, Fang Lizhi in 1989 was in, after all, self-inflicted captivity with his wife and son. For a blind man to be on his own without his family -- and I'm sure the Chinese government would not have permitted that unification -- would have been something. And he told me, of course, he was anxious about the treatment of his family, as he might well have been. But this is something I don't know. I did talk --

GWERTZMAN: This is a strange, the AP story. I'm looking at it now, in the fourth paragraph, "A U.S. official denies knowledge of the threat --

COHEN: Yeah.

GWERTZMAN: -- but says Chen was told his family would be sent back home if he stayed in the embassy."

COHEN: Yes. I think that's what they told me also. I think that was our understanding. Of course, being sent back home was no bed of roses, because that would mean to be under that continuing abusive detention that his wife has been subject to all these years, of course. And he had to balance so many factors. And I think -- you know, here's a man who was willing to sacrifice himself and his relation with this family for the cause.

He really is a believer, and the highest priority to him is to do something for the rule of law in China. That's why he didn't want to leave. All this nonsense about he wanted to leave China, that's not so at all. He wants to stay in China. The problem is, he doesn't want to stay in China under lock and key, and he doesn't want to stay in China if, on release now, he's not given any freedom of speech.

So the real question is going to be how are they going to put flesh on the bare bones of this agreement? I think the best precedent we have -- and I've talked to Chen about this -- is that of the internationally-known artist, Ai Weiwei. Ai Weiwei is still under criminal justice restraint in China. After 81 days of illegal confinement, they let him out under a kind of bail arrangement that gives him the freedom to be in Beijing city but not anywhere else. That will last until next month.

He is under very strict arrangements there, limiting Internet access, access to the press, et cetera. Nevertheless, Ai Weiwei has managed -- he's a very clever guy -- to ignore most of these rules most of the time. I just gave him a human rights award on Thursday night in New York via Skype. He made a speech via Skype to several hundred people, admirers. We have lots of contact. I met him when I was in Beijing, December 21st. Ai Weiwei gives interviews.

He's had to trim his sail a little bit at certain times. He has to report occasionally. But he has made the most of this restraint, and we hope in the next month it'll be off. This is a new role. He is showing a kind of a path for other people who are trying hard in new circumstances in China to create a space between prison and total freedom.

And the party, because they're afraid of public opinion and foreign opinion, has not locked him up again, even though they've had to eat a little bitterness, as Chinese say, from some of the things he's done. Now, that's a kind of precedent I've talked with Chen about. Can he skillfully build on this, not go to the extreme and not be totally passive so he'll be dissatisfied and feel he's just a prisoner outside prison. And that's the challenge that confronts everybody now.

And the minute he left prison, that challenge began with some of the human rights activists concerned about him getting in touch. And it's a problem not only for him but also for his wife. His wife is a free person, highly intelligent, very courageous. Are they going to restrict her contacts with friends who call? So there are so many arrangements to be decided on.

And the problem is China is not a monolithic government. The Foreign Ministry negotiates these arrangements, unidentified party leaders approve them, the orders go down to the police -- there are various police agencies, the secret police, the regular police, they're all involved here. And do they act with one understanding? There's got to be some united operational group formed here, otherwise different agencies will go their own way. And in China, the police have a lot of sway. The Foreign Ministry is very weak.

So the top leadership has to take an interest in this. And in order to assure that, America's top leadership has to ensure it's behind the deal, that's why three high diplomatic officials accompany him to the hospital, that's why Secretary Clinton made a statement as soon as she got there. And now we're waiting for President Obama. I made a condition of Chen agreeing to go with this gamble -- and he sees the opportunity to gamble, the promise of it, but he also sees the risks -- but we made a condition of acceptance that President Obama himself show his interest and state the U.S. support for the arrangement. And I'm sure Obama, especially in the light of the campaign, will soon have an opportunity to take that position.

GWERTZMAN: Right. Let me get another question in. Next question?

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Paul Eckert, with Reuters.

QUESTIONER: Thank you, Mr. Cohen, calling from Washington, D.C. You did talk about putting flesh on the bones, but how credible should we be viewing Chinese promises that not only Chen, but that his family members and that they would be safe and unharmed, and also that those -- that there be no retribution from -- you know, for the -- to the long list of people who helped him get from Shandong to the Beijing -- the U.S. embassy.

COHEN: Well, the first thing to note now, we're surprised how quickly most of the people who were detained after being associated with his release, how quickly they were released --

QUESTIONER: Mmm hmm.

COHEN: -- including this fellow named Guo.

QUESTIONER: Mmm hmm.

COHEN: What we're wondering about is Ms. He Peirong, a totally admirable person who put out a pretty interesting statement just before they got her.

I also worry -- we've heard nothing recently about Chen's oldest brother, whom I know, and the nephew, who apparently in self-defense out of fright when these thugs showed up, must have got involved in a scuffle where he stabbed somebody. We don't know how that case is being processed. But of course, we hope the eyes of the world being on them will lead the Chinese to try to deal with those cases in an enlightened way.

As to their promises -- you know, I've been in cases where we get a solemn, diplomatic pledge from the Chinese government: If Lai Changxing, the smuggler who defected -- fled to Canada, comes back from Canada, we will not execute him.

There's no doubt in my mind China will live up to that promise. The world community would ridicule them and never turn anybody back to China again if they didn't. So at that end of the spectrum, you have a formal, public, diplomatic-governmental commitment.

At the other end, you have internal commitments. You'll notice, because of their concern for sovereignty, the Chinese government issues nothing about any commitments here. They issue a complaint. But there are commitments. That's why Secretary Clinton referred to them. Commitments have been made. I would be surprised if the Chinese government goes back on them in principle.

The problem is in practice. And this can be raised in so many ways and so many opportunities for misunderstanding. When you have commitments at an abstract, pretty general level, but concrete cases come up, you have to have a committee -- I think there's got to be a kind of de facto U.S.-China cooperative committee to discuss and deal with all the questions that are come up.

GWERTZMAN: OK. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Ewen MacAskill, with Guardian newspaper.

QUESTIONER: It's OK. The question was answered. There was a AP one that I was interested in. And the point in that AP story -- it said that he wanted to leave, but you suggested that that's nonsense. Is that right?

COHEN: That is nonsense. He only wanted to leave if there was no other alternative.

QUESTIONER: Yeah.

COHEN: He wanted to say in China. That has been his desire. He's always wanted to have a chance to study law, which he hasn't had until now. And that was an idea I put out as early as 2006, when they locked him up. The local authorities had a chance to go for that. Shanghai Jiao Tong University Law School had agreed to take him and his wife. But that would have, you see, got him out of custody there, but it wouldn't have silenced him. And they want to silence him.

And now the challenge is if the local authorities themselves are under severe investigation, as I hope they will be -- that's also a question -- is he going to be freer to speak out? What he wants to say is all in favor of the rule of law that the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee keeps invoking in the Bo Xilai case -- even while keeping Bo Xilai in circumstances that don't involve the rule of law but involve the rule of the party. It's another contradiction.

So you know, is the central government willing to see this man as a able cooperator in its effort to build an appropriate legal system for a great China? With a new leadership, this is a new opportunity. And I think people should see with a positive light. Unfortunately, the history of the thing makes people entirely, reasonably suspicious about, can you trust these commitments?

GWERTZMAN: OK. The -- you mentioned Bo. How important is that case in relation to Chinese law?

COHEN: Well, I think it's fundamental. First of all, his wife's case and that of her assistant -- that's a capital case. And there have been many capital cases that have been falsely dealt with and people executed unjustly, including a number sent to the gallows by Bo himself.

The handling of Bo's case, as a member of the Politburo, is very important, just as the handling of two previous Politburo people's cases, Tan Shi Tung (ph) and Chong Liong Yu (ph) were. This will have to be more visible than the disposition of their cases.

And the investigation may not be done yet. That's one way the party disciplinary procedure gives them an opportunity for politicking, negotiating, but also finding out a lot more about this whole network of corruption that Bo and family appear to have been involved in.

GWERTZMAN: All right, next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from James Kitfield, of the National Journal magazine.

QUESTIONER: Thank you for doing this. You know, I guess until we get some clarity on this AP story, we're not going to know exactly how to frame this. But you know -- and correct me if I'm wrong, but if this story is true and he actually was coerced into, you know, leaving the embassy by the threat of having his wife beaten to death, that casts a whole different pall on what's happened here, does it not? It suggests to me that this guy is -- has, you know, like I said, been coerced into doing this.

And if that's the case, can anything that we -- that the Chinese committed to be taken with confidence?

COHEN: You see, I'm not saying whether it's true or not. It's the first time I've heard of it. And it there again involves -- the story is, apparently, somebody who was detaining the wife among the local authorities said this.

Well, I assume they may have said it. Certainly sounds plausible. I don't know how far up the line that was communicated. I don't know when. Certainly, the U.S. people I dealt with had no awareness of it on Monday or Tuesday when I was dealing with them. Harold Koh would never have allowed this to go. And Chen himself didn't say that to me. We --

GWERTZMAN: You know, it's a -- it's a very strange story. The Washington Post, for instance, on its Web page right now has Chen calling the Washington Post reporter in Beijing from the ambassador's car on his way to the hospital, saying how pleased he was. So this is a very unusual situation. Yeah.

COHEN: Well, you see, what could have happened is when he got to the hospital and met his family, his wife told him that that had happened. But that wouldn't have influenced his decision. It might have made him regret the decision he's made, because he was fearful.

The first time we talked, Monday -- when I got on the phone it seemed to be an occasion for just letting go what he hadn't let go with the other people. And he said to me, you know, say -- (inaudible) -- very, very fearful, very insecure, very uncomfortable.

I said, well, if that's the way, then there's no way you can accept the deal. You have to go with your deepest feelings. And just don't accept the offer. And that was the way we left it on Monday.

But on Tuesday -- he'd been thinking it over all day, and he definitely -- he may be very susceptible; I don't know.

And you know, here's a man who's -- he had a skewed livelihood until he got locked up seven years ago. And you can imagine what it's like when you're out of contact. I run into this frequently, when we give advice to the families of Chinese who are locked up for some time. And the wife is on the outside, and she says, I don't want to tell the press about the case. And the husband's inside, and he says, we must tell the press about the torture I've suffered.

And whose judgment do you go with? In principle, you should go with the detained person. On the other hand, the detained person not only lacks information on what's happened in recent years or about his case, but he may not be in a mentally stable condition. These are really tough -- these are tough questions.

But in any event, by the second day when we went over again what the alternatives were to taking this chance, and he saw -- you know, for him, everything worthwhile in life other than his family would pretty much come to an end for the foreseeable future. We talked about examples -- Weijing, Chen and others, once they hit the United States. And then we talked about the U.S. giving support to him and not only moral support and political support, but financial support, with the help, we hope, of U.S. foundations, et cetera.

This is a new path. This is -- no one's ever done this before. And we talked about the Ai Weiwei possibility and the skills needed in order to make that effective. And finally, we agreed if the president of the United States would show sufficient concern for this case and himself make the kind of statement that Hillary made today, that he would accept the deal. And I promised him I would make him my highest priority and we will cooperate with him. And I'm sure the whole American legal, academic world will cooperate with him. I hope to see him when I'm there in a couple of weeks.

That'll be another test. By then, he'll have had many tests. If they don't let me see him or we can't freely communicate and cooperate, well then it's disappointing. At some point, he may say the experiment has failed; I now think there's no alternative to leaving. If it comes to that, then he's -- I think he has the assurance the American government will do everything conceivable. And world opinion, I think, can be mobilized to back him.

So that's the risk he's taking. Will the experiment succeed? I don't know. But it's worth --

GWERTZMAN: We're in the midst of a breaking story now, which makes it difficult to really get a handle on it because there are all kinds of reports on the -- on the wires --

COHEN: And not all of them are accurate. Some of them are completely inaccurate.

GWERTZMAN: Yeah, I know. I understand. And some are quoting friends of his --

COHEN: Yeah.

GWERTZMAN: -- and, you know, it's -- it would be really a great embarrassment, I think, to Secretary of State Clinton if in fact the Chinese go back on the deal within hours.

COHEN: I don't think they are. Is there a report now they're doing it?

GWERTZMAN: No. It's just his concern -- it all stems from this AP story which says --

COHEN: Oh. You know, this gets to the leadership -- elite rivalry, succession problem that China's confronting. Different Politburo Standing Committee people control different systems. The man who controls this system and who has controlled Chen's fate since 2005 is the former minister of public security, Zhou Youngkang, who has been, in recent years, the head of the Party Political-Legal Commission that controls the whole legal system, including the courts, the police, the prosecutors, et cetera -- the lawyers.

And he's on the defensive -- some stories saying he's being investigated for being too close to Bo Xilai. Well, I'm unhappy about him because he could have stopped this whole thing in 2005. I exposed the abuses in the Far Eastern Economic Review, in an open letter calling on him to say, is this the way a decent, civilized government should portray itself to its people and to the world? And after that letter there were meetings -- you know, this business about we don't know what the local people are doing, we're powerless to stop them. That's nonsense.

Whenever its important enough, they do stop what goes on locally. But they met and they decided it wasn't important enough. In fact, they should go on and prosecute him and convict him, because that way you'd have fewer questions.

GWERTZMAN: There are -- there are constant stories on the wires now. It's -- I'm -- as I'm talking to you, I'm looking at the wires -- the - he's -- Chen is now quoted by news -- by a TV company as saying they spoke to him and he's unhappy; there's nobody from the American embassy at the hospital with him.

COHEN: But they went with him to the hospital.

GWERTZMAN: They took him to the hospital, but --

COHEN: Yeah, but apparently they didn't stay. They probably went home to sleep.

GWERTZMAN: No. (Chuckles.) Yeah, it's now, of course, midnight in China. It's a very strange situation -- I mean, you know, it's not -- (chuckles) -- it's not an easy -- so we're putting you on the spot because clearly the story is developing as we talk.

COHEN: Well, look, that's life.

GWERTZMAN: (Chuckles.)

COHEN: That's the way things are in China -- (inaudible).

GWERTZMAN: That's right. That's right. That's right.

COHEN: I like the line from Matthew Arnold's "Sohrab and Rustum," "Only the event will teach us in its hour."

GWERTZMAN: (Chuckles.)

COHEN: And we're waiting. The events are surrounding us now. But I tell you, these American negotiators are entitled to go home and sleep. They have been working around the clock. And I warned them, we got to be careful because it reminded me of what Bobby Kennedy said about why they nominated Lyndon Johnson for the vice presidency in 1960 at the convention. He said: It wouldn't have happened if we hadn't all been so tired. And you know, everybody was very tired at the --

GWERTZMAN: Right.

COHEN: -- Harold Koh is an extremely able person, very patient, very human rights-oriented, very U.S. foreign policy-oriented. And Kurt Campbell is a very strong negotiator. And he's known as being a very tough guy in dealing with the Chinese, but he strongly favored this because he saw the alternative would be nothing that Chen could accept or want to live with for years maybe. This isn't 1989. Our bargaining position over China is not as strong as it was when Fang Lizhi went to the --

GWERTZMAN: Really?

COHEN: -- U.S. embassy.

GWERTZMAN: OK. Next question?

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Elizabeth Pond with the World Policy Journal.

QUESTIONER: Yes, hello. I wonder if you could say a little bit more about the failure of the central leadership to control local leaderships, because this certainly has been true -- for example, the legislation will pass very nice laws about land tenure for peasants, but then they can't take it to courts. And the local authorities, municipalities keep confiscating their land. Is there any indication that the central leadership could respond by sitting more on the local leadership?

COHEN: Of course. Everything has its price politically. How much do you want to expend in your political capital for any particular purpose? Although China, as you know, has no federal system, it has a very strong de facto local power devolution kind of situation.

And Zhou Yongkang, ironically, when he was minister of public security, tried hard to reassert the control of the ministry in Beijing over the local police. And he made some very good, unpublicized progress, but not enough. And this is always a problem that they have to feel in every case -- whom are they offending by interfering with what the local people do?

And they know -- they had to sympathize with the local people in Linyi. On the one hand, they said, your jobs and your future depend on your assuring us there will be not more than a certain amount of births in the Shandong province next year. On the other hand, they say, and when you take action, you must comply with the procedures of the criminal procedure law. Well, the local officials think they can't accomplish the first goal if they respect the second. And so they ignored the second and they go for the first. And that's where they start abusing all the women and their families when they want to subject the women to sterilization and abortion.

And that's how -- that really blew Chen's lid. He could put up with the frustrations of being a barefoot lawyer with in-and-out success in court, but when they forbade him to help thousands of people who were being detained, abused, a few murdered, by the local authorities to enforce these birth quotas, he got very depressed. And that's the way he was when I last saw him. And that's why he asked me to help him find the press, because he felt the foreign press was the way to reach the ears of the leadership. And the Washington Post came through. Other media weren't immediately interested.

GWERTZMAN: Mmm hmm. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Zhu Jinzhen (sp) with the (Xinhua ?) news agency.

QUESTIONER: Thank you for doing this. I want to ask with the fourth round of SED coming, how both countries can use a platform to build a more strategic trust and then reduce tensions? Secondly --

COHEN: I -- could I -- I couldn't hear that question well.

QUESTIONER: OK. Let me repeat. With the fourth round of Strategic and Economic Dialogue coming, how both China and the United States can use this platform to build more strategic trust and to reduce tensions?

COHEN: Well, by working in various groupings on various difficult questions that confront us. And I think some progress is being made. The unfortunate thing is human rights cases, and lawlessness cases more generally -- like Bo Xilai's, Ai Weiwei's -- they keep intervening and diverting our officials from these other important tasks, like foreign policy and economic cooperation, et cetera.

QUESTIONER: And second question. There are two tracks under this dialogue -- both Economic and the Strategic Dialogue. How can both sides use this platform to help solve some global changes, including the eurozone debt crisis and reform of a important agency like IMF?

COHEN: You know, we have three minutes left to discuss the subject that we were going to discuss. And you raise some very good questions that are so broad that are impossible to say anything intelligent about in the time remaining. And I feel an obligation to Chen Guangcheng to hear what other questions are about what we're talking about.

GWERTZMAN: All right. Next question please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Betty Lin, with the World Journal.

QUESTIONER: Hi, thank you for doing this. So Harold Cole is also in China for S&ED talks. And do you know when Hillary Clinton talked to Mr. Chen? And also, could you tell us the deal that you know? And without president's statement, he also agreed to come out. And how did he come up with a decision? And will the president come up with some other, like, concerns or statement on this? And is there a pressure that have this resolved before S&ED talks? Thank you.

COHEN: The president has been in Afghanistan today. And I think his attention will soon turn to the situation in China. And as I said, I hope he will make an important statement to show at the very highest level of the American government, we want to see this new experiment, this daring experiment with China succeed. And that is going to require the leaders of China, not merely the leaders of the Chinese police organization, to deal with these problems. We have to get their attention.

And with their attention, I'm confident that a lot will be done to make this new course possible. It may not be 100 percent, but I think it's a lot better than the alternatives.

GWERTZMAN: The question -- you know, right now, as I've said several times, we're in the midst of different accounts by the press. And the AP stories continues to get a lot of attention because it contrasts very strongly with his earlier comments -- that is, Chen is quoted in the AP story as -- he was shaken up; told the AP that U.S. officials relayed a threat from the Chinese side that they would kill his wife if he didn't leave the embassy. And then the U.S. official denies knowledge of the threat.

So I don't -- I -- but you -- when you last were involved in this, you knew what the terms of the deal were. And as far as you know the deal is still in effect. In fact, that's what Mrs. Clinton spoke about.

COHEN: Yeah. This came through exactly as 29 hours ago, when I got on the phone with her. (And ?) I anticipated it would. I don't know what took place in the subsequent 29 hours. And I don't know what pressures Chen has been subjected to on his release from the hospital.

GWERTZMAN: You know, I think -- you know, I think they -- I think it's very important, as we get near the end of this interview, I think it's very important that the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, even though it's now early morning time Thursday, get on this case and clarify things.

COHEN: Yes, that's a good suggestion. I think the saddest outcome would be if events transpire now that put Chen at war with the U.S. government that represents his only secure support.

GWERTZMAN: Right.

COHEN: And it could easily happen through confusion -- through confusion being sown that would create distrust between him and the U.S. And then he'd just be out there. And that would be very, very unfortunate.

GWERTZMAN: Right. All right. OK, is (sic) there still more questions?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. We have questioners in the queue.

GWERTZMAN: OK, go ahead.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Hop Chao (ph) with NTD Television.

QUESTIONER: I just want to ask you, when you talk about the local government -- the control -- actually, we know that (this ?) Chen Guangcheng -- (this ?) Bo Xilai -- Yuan Weijing's incident make the top leaderships in the battles. What is your opinion about Chen Guangcheng may involved in such kind of gambling?

COHEN: I'm sorry; what is my opinion about Chen Guangcheng what?

QUESTIONER: Yeah, I think -- we know that the top leaderships in the battle right now, which is -- (inaudible ) -- and also Zhou Yongkang controlling. Does Chen Guangcheng's incident may involve any such kind of battle?

COHEN: We don't know the internal impact in the current leadership discussions over how to cope with Bo Xilai or Ai Weiwei, or this case and many others. It may be it's going to take some time. I was not happy at the fact that two leading members of the Politburo were out of the country when this came. I assume that Wen Jiabao has returned. I don't know where Li Changchun is.

But it's a question. How does the Politburo as a group -- a standing committee -- how does it meet when one or more of its people is outside the country? And China has to get its decision-making capacity into I think better shape for coping with the future. And this may be an illustration of that, especially when there is dissension, as there appears to be currently, among some members of the Standing Committee.

I think the ultimate question the leaders of China now have to confront -- and all these cases raise it -- is lawlessness. On the one hand, the party has encouraged the belief in the rule of law. The party has encouraged putting human rights into the constitution and the protection of property. It's increased the rights consciousness of the masses.

On the other hand, in practice it has simply inflamed the conditions. Despite China's great economic and social progress, more and more contentious questions arise. And they don't have the institutions.

You know, Chen Guangcheng said to me once, why can't I go into court and settle these problems? Do they want me to go into the streets? I don't want to go into the streets.

He wanted to use the system. That's why it's incorrect to say he's a conventional dissident. He wasn't calling for change of the fundamentals of party-monopoly rule. He was calling on them to put their money where their mouth is, to really enforce their legal principles and rules. And instead, he proved to be the most lawful person. And it's the rulers of China who are violating their country's rules.

GWERTZMAN: Next question?

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Truby (sic; Trudy) Rubin with the Philadelphia Enquiry (sic; Inquirer).

QUESTIONER: Hi, Jerry. Thanks for doing this. I wanted to ask you whether you thought that there was any chance that the leadership, or at least the reformers in the outgoing leadership like Wen Jiabao, could see this as the opportunity you cite?

I was thinking of the event that happened in Wukan, where a village was made a template for reforming governance and rule of law a few months ago. And now we have the Bo Xilai case, which is the example of lawlessness. Do you see the possibility that this could be made an example of lawfulness --

COHEN: You see --

QUESTIONER: -- and that he might be treated in the way that you say as an exemplar of somebody who wanted rule of law?

COHEN: You see, this could be an opportunity coming sooner than I anticipated; for a cluster of leaders in the Standing Committee to say, the people of China are ready now for a better legal system and one that's truly enforced. That's what they're demanding. They're more rights consciousness. And we have failed to respond to them the way we responded to them when they needed economic development.

I admire Zhu Rongji, the former prime minister, who saw China had gone as far as the socialist system could go without opening up, and he saw that the WTO entry would allow -- would require opening up of China. And he knocked heads together, and he risked his career, he provided strong leadership, and he succeeded in getting China into the WTO. We have never had that kind of leadership at the top for somebody to try to make China less lawless -- not in principle: They've got lots of laws and principle, they love to count how many laws they've promulgated, but everybody knows in practice that's what they lack.

Somewhere, sometime there is going to be one or more people in the leadership who are going to say this is my contribution, this is the way I want to be remembered in history. No one thought in 1956 Khrushchev would introduce de-Stalinization. He had been Stalin's running dog. What we didn't know was he didn't like the humiliation and arbitrariness of the system. At the 20th Party Congress, he tried to moderate that system and made some progress, stunning the Communist world and some of us on the outside. And certainly, nobody knew that Gorby, even though he'd been to law school, was going to do what he did in trying for institutional reform.

It's hard to know what the forthcoming leaders will do, because nobody gives it away before he gets to the top. And of course, the pressures for consensus smother real leadership usually. That's why, you know, Bo Xilai was unusual. I had hope Bo Xilai, instead of supporting the Cultural Revolution as a person who had been entitled to a very good education and who was educating his son in the West, might get to the top and make this his cause, not a return to the arbitrariness of the Cultural Revolution, but an establishment of a genuine rule of law. Well, he obviously wasn't going to do that, and he'll suffer because of it. But maybe there are people, and maybe this helps to crystallize something that could come sooner than I anticipated.

GWERTZMAN: Jerry, I've been getting word that our interview session is about over.

COHEN: Yeah.

GWERTZMAN: So I wanted to thank you very much on behalf of the Council on Foreign Relations and all the people out there who have benefited from your wisdom. Thank you very much.

COHEN: Thank you. I hope everyone will continue to follow this, to say the least.

GWERTZMAN: OK. Well, it's a live story. OK. Thank you. Bye.

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