STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's talk about this more with NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. She's traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She's in Beijing. And Michele, how did this seem to go so wrong so quickly?
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, it is kind of amazing. I mean, U.S. officials told us last night and even today that they felt confident that they had worked out arrangements that met Chen's needs, that he would be reunited with his family and his family would be able to stay in China. U.S. officials talked about how he wanted to go to university, and the Chinese authorities had offered to let him choose between seven universities. So the officials involved really seemed taken aback when Chen started talking about asylum. They said he never once asked for that during 30 or 40 hours of talks. And now, diplomats are back talking to him today, mainly trying to clarify why he changed his mind and what the U.S. can do to help.
INSKEEP: You said diplomats are talking with him again today, meaning the United States has reestablished contact with him and they're having discussions about what to do?
KELEMEN: Diplomats say they always had a chance to talk to him, that they've called him. They had trouble getting through on the phone last night, but have spoken to him and to his wife today.
INSKEEP: I wonder if part of the issues here is simply that in the embassy he was isolated; he didn't have all the information he has now that he's back with his family. And they seem, according to Louisa Lim's report that we just heard, to have expressed great concern.
KELEMEN: Well, you know, it's interesting. The ambassador to China, Gary Locke, told us that Chen agreed to leave the embassy only after the Chinese made sort of a downpayment and that is that they brought his family to Beijing. And Locke told us that Chen did speak to his wife a couple of times by phone. Let's listen to how the ambassador described the part of the conversation that he heard.
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GARY LOCKE: She was imploring him to come to the hospital, to be reunited with the family, and saying that there will always be uncertainties and we need to take first steps. We need to keep the struggle going and we have to take it a step at a time.
KELEMEN: So, obviously, it's possible that by the time he got to see her in person that the two had changed their mind. I mean one of the things we have to keep in mind is that Chen also knew that if he stayed at the embassy that his family would be taken back to the village where they had been so badly mistreated.
INSKEEP: So now he is asking for asylum for himself and for his family. Can the United States give that to him?
KELEMEN: Well, I mean, the problem now is that he's no longer under U.S. diplomatic protection and he's going to need China to let him go. Before the U.S. can even begin negotiations with the Chinese on that, they want to be very clear of what he wants and see what they can do at this point. And that's where we're at right now, this very fluid and precarious situation.
INSKEEP: And of course, all this is happening in the same week as high level diplomatic talks that I'm sure diplomats from both sides would rather have had focused on other issues.
KELEMEN: Well, I mean, officials here are determined to make sure that this doesn't cast a shadow over this strategic and economic dialogue. And I have to say, Steve, it was quite surreal having this going on in the background while the pomp and circumstance of these big negotiations are going on.
Clinton, in her opening remarks, only touched briefly on human rights. She issued kind of a fairly bland statement about that. And mainly she stressed how closely the U.S. and China are working together on key issues today. Let's hear a bit of that.
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SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: The conversations we have here in Beijing reflect how much the U.S.-China relationship has grown in the 40 years since President Nixon came to China. Then we had hardly any ties to speak of. Now, we work together.
KELEMEN: So Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner stayed focused on this broad agenda with China while diplomats scrambled behind the scenes to work on Chen's case.
INSKEEP: And we'll see if the U.S. and China can, as Secretary Clinton put it, work together. Michele Kelemen in Beijing, thanks very much.
KELEMEN: Thank you, Steve.
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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.