One man's fate the flag for a billion
Blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng. Photo: AP
I resisted a nagging doubt about the Chinese dissident Mr Chen Guangcheng until I got to the part in Thursday's reports where he says: ''My fervent hope is that it would be possible for me and my family to leave for the US on Hillary Clinton's plane.''
Why not insist that Clinton vacate her private quarters so that he might sleep away those dreary in-flight hours?
Likewise, it was not enough that Chen could workshop his case with three American heavy-hitters - assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, State Department legal adviser Harold Koh and American ambassador Gary Locke. After all that, Chen was demanding a meeting with Mrs Clinton.
Don't get me wrong. The treatment by Chinese authorities of the blind lawyer Chen and his family is appalling - even grotesque, if the latest accounts of his village home being converted into a high-tech prison and of his supporters being rounded up are only half true.
But there is nothing new in that - we're all well aware of what Human Rights Watch describes as China's ''appalling track record on human rights''. What is new is the usually fearless Chen being all over the shop, after instigating a crisis in which the stakes are so high - for him most certainly, and for Beijing; but mostly for Washington.
It was ballsy for Chen to plan his escape from house arrest on the eve of a high-level summit for which Mrs Clinton and a team of 200 American diplomats would be in China.
Damned clever, too, to have friends hand him on to US diplomats who then shook off Chinese security goons in a high-speed chase through Beijing, before Chen was delivered into the diplomatic safety of the US embassy.
But for Chen then to come back out on the terms on which he did? And in so doing, destroying the only leverage the US had - which was his presence in the embassy?
This is troubling. Chen knows the Chinese authorities better than any foreign diplomat does - he has gone toe to toe against them for more than a decade. He should have been the one explaining that despite the charm offensive during the last Olympics, China was still China. Why be charmed now?
Accepting an offer by Chinese officials to be nice to him was to fall for the oldest trick in the authoritarian book of diplomacy, especially after causing the regime such international embarrassment with his daring escape from detention and the ruckus of him being holed up in the embassy - not to mention his back-to-back interviews with the world's media and even a cell-phone live cross to a congressional committee hearing in Washington.
It sounds hard-hearted, but I'll pose a question here because officials in Beijing and Washington are sure to be asking it privately as they examine what went wrong this week - did Mr Chen overplay his hand or was he simply overwhelmed by the crisis?
Like the last dissident given refuge in the US Embassy, Chen was well placed to exit the country - but he might have had to wait for a year or more before China relented, a prospect he apparently discussed with the Americans. But what of his family - if Chen had gone, would Beijing hang on to them to punish him or would they be allowed to follow him into exile in the hope of getting Chen to shut up?
Did Chen think that by emerging from the embassy he somehow might leverage his gains to include flights out for the entire family?
Was it the threat of reprisals against his family that made him accept what sounded like a half-baked Chinese deal to be allowed to study in a university town near Beijing? Or had US diplomats been too enthusiastic in what Chen described during an interview with CNN, as their ''lobbying'' for him to accept the Chinese deal … before he reverted in subsequent interviews to paeans of praise for the Americans.
And then another burst of that naivety, in Chen's belief that the Chinese would allow him to go to and from the US Embassy as though it was his local RSL - ''The [Americans] never said whether or not I could go back after getting out of hospital. I'm a free citizen - if something happens, of course I could go to the embassy.''
Chen is brilliant and utterly unafraid as a local campaigner, but nonsense like this and his demands that Clinton fly him out of the country, just like that, suggest that he does not grasp the magnitude of the circumstances he has created for himself and for the two superpower governments whose relationship, at best, is edgy.
Privately, some US diplomats have already conceded the obvious - it was a mistake to rush to settle the Chen crisis before the Clinton-Chinese talks opened this week. They admitted erring, too, in failing to extract Chinese guarantees that they could remain with or in contact with Chen after he left the embassy - but there was no guarantee Beijing would agree to such an American demand.
Was it realpolitik or callousness when the US administration opted to stay quiet in the first days of the crisis - and to attempt to negotiate a deal which, as Clinton put it, ''reflects [Chen's] choices and our values''? Obama was not wheeled out to publicly blast the human rights failings of Washington's No.1 creditor nation; and, some bluster notwithstanding, the Chinese have been careful in their criticism of the US.
Remarkably, there is still hope for Chen. When he was in the embassy he did not want to leave the country and, however imperfect, a deal was cobbled together under which Beijing said he could move to a university town with his family to continue his legal studies.
Now that he's out of the embassy, he says he wants to leave China - and it seems the Chinese are amenable to Chen and his family accepting a fellowship offered by an American university.
It's not over yet. But when it is, we'll know a little more about the world in which we live.
If Chen is prevented from leaving, Obama will get a savage belting from his Republican opponents; China will be seen to have won and human rights, especially for a billion Chinese, will have lost.
If Chen gets out and Washington and Beijing can stand as gentlemen dealmakers, we'll just have to wait and see what hope there is for the human rights of a billion - less one.