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Chen Guangcheng Story; Interview with Madeleine Albright

Aired May 03, 2012 - 15:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

Now if you turn to this program in certain parts of China tonight, you might only see this -- that's right, the screen goes to black because censors in China are working hard to keep the Chinese people from seeing what the rest of the world is riveted by, and that's the incredible human drama of Chen Guangcheng, his dramatic escape from house arrest to the United States embassy in China and now under guard at a Beijing hospital.

But this is also a political drama. It's the story of an American diplomatic triumph apparently gone sour for the moment. On Wednesday, Chen was hugging and high-fiving senior U.S. officials after reaching a deal with China to give him what he said he wanted: to stay inside China, to go to college and to live freely with his family.

But just hours after Chen left the embassy, a dramatic turnabout. He was pleading to leave China and come to the United States along with his family, reportedly because he was concerned for his family's safety.

Tonight, we have key interviews on this story. Who better to talk to than former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who herself walked the razor's edge of diplomacy between U.S. interests and moral imperatives? I'll be talking with her in just a few moments.

But my first guest is a close friend of Chen's, Jerome Cohen, a lawyer who first met Chen nine years ago. He's been talking with the so-called blind dissident frequently, advising him on his negotiations with the United States and he joins me now.

Thank you for coming in.


AMANPOUR: Mr. Cohen, you were advising Chen and you were part of these negotiations by phone. What did Chen want and what is your understanding of what the Chinese agreed to?

COHEN: Well, Chen's first choice was to stay in China to play a role. He had played a very important role before the age of 35, too important for the Chinese taste, and for the last seven years or so he's been locked up.

What Chen wants to do is to study law, to take part in China's further legal development and to have free communication, as he said to me the other day, I want simply the rights of ever other Chinese citizen.

AMANPOUR: As far as you know, that seems to be what the Chinese agree to, right, when the United States concluded those negotiations barely 24 hours ago.

COHEN: We know the bare bones of the agreement, how flesh would be put on those bones remain to be seen. So the question was, for example, while he was studying law -- and I'm sure that would have been arranged -- what degree of communication would he have with his friends in the human rights community, with members of the media? That was not clear.

AMANPOUR: Was it at all realistic for him to want to stay in China under the political situation that we know about there, the political system, and want all these rights that, frankly, no other Chinese have?

COHEN: China is evolving. This is 21st century. The political system lags behind the rest of China's progress. The time is right for legal progress. Ai Weiwei case, the famous international artist, is instructive. Ai is under formal criminal restraint, unlike Chen, who's not accused of doing anything against the law.

Ai is managing, even though he's out on bail in Beijing, to exercise considerable political as well as artistic freedom, even though he often infringes formal orders under which he is supposed to serve. This is a very encouraging example. The other night I gave Ai an award for human rights efforts via Skype. He made a talk to several hundred people in New York and we were able to talk to him.

AMANPOUR: So this is extraordinary. And if it's doable, what accounts now for Chen Guangcheng dramatic turnaround? He's got spooked by something.

COHEN: Everything changed when he got to the hospital. All of a sudden the people who had worked so hard to secure his future from our embassy and our State Department, they worked hard as can be and they went home to sleep.

The doctors we had summoned to examine him, American doctors, finished their exams and they left him. Everyone thought it's time to go to bed and Chinese generally go to bed early. I was worried he might not have freedom of communication --

AMANPOUR: He knew they were coming back to see him. They had told him that. And he admits that right now.

COHEN: Of course.

AMANPOUR: What spooked him? Why suddenly has he decided he wants to leave and leave on Secretary Clinton's plane with his whole family?

COHEN: Freedom of communication is the irony. All of a sudden, his rights, companions, people who have suffered in the seven years while he's been in prison or at home, they got a hold of him, and they said this is zany. Don't do this. You're just totally unrealistic. It'll never work.

At the same time, the media were getting through to him. And his wife, who had encouraged him to take this deal and leave the embassy and reunite the family, she changed her mind when her friends were getting a hold of her. And so he's in a very fragile emotional state. You have to understand the enormous pressures under which he's been living and recently operating. And it got to be too much.

AMANPOUR: So what on Earth happens now? The United States, as you say, came to a pretty good deal, it seems, got the Chinese to agree to do the things that we've just mentioned. Now what? Can they open negotiations again? Will he come out? What will happen now?

COHEN: I'm an optimist and one thing we share with the Chinese is the belief you must turn a vice into a virtue. This debacle may leave him better off if he really wants to come to the United States. He's now reunited with his family. He wouldn't have been, had he stayed in the embassy. And the whole world is watching.

I think the Chinese leaders, however angry they are, at him and at the U.S. government for interfering with their sovereignty, they're practical people. They're going to want to get rid of him and his family in the most humane appearance possible.

AMANPOUR: And are you involved in the ongoing negotiations?

COHEN: I'm not in the negotiations. I never was. I was just asked by Chen to come in and give him advice. But if he comes to the United States, I will be proud to be his host. We have a U.S.-Asia Law Institute at NYU. He will be a visiting fellow. And we'll make the best of the situation.

AMANPOUR: All right. Mr. Cohen, I hear you saying you think he's going to come out with his family.

And a note: we have requested consistently to get interviews with Chinese officials, government officials. But so far they've declined to come on this program or on any program to talk about this issue. But we continue to work on trying to get their side of the story.

Meanwhile, the struggle for human rights isn't limited to just China. Madeleine Albright served under President Bill Clinton as the first female secretary of state. It was on her watch that the U.S. intervened in Bosnia and in Kosovo to end genocide.

And as she says in her new memoir, "Prague Winter," a dedication to democratic freedom is due in no small part to her own extraordinary life story. We'll talk to her when we come back.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. For decades, human rights used to be at the very top of America's agenda with China, but then the issue was mostly relegated to private diplomacy as China's power and economic might steadily rose. China has become an essential player in North Korea, Iran, Syria, and of course it does hold more U.S. debt than any other country.

No one is better qualified to speak to this moral minefield than Madeleine Albright. Secretary of state under President Bill Clinton and the first woman to serve in that position, her latest book, a memoir called "Prague Winter" traces her incredible personal story of war, of life under Communist dictatorship and of learning at the age of 59 that she was, in fact, born Jewish.

And the 25 members of her family, including three of her grandparents, were killed in the Holocaust. Just last week, Secretary Albright also learned that she'll receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor.

Congratulations. Welcome to the program.

FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Thank you. It's wonderful to be with you, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Thank you. You just heard a really interesting story in this incredible debate about what's going to happen to Chen Guangcheng. Mr. Jerome Cohen thinks that he will be allowed out, the Chinese will agree. Do you agree based on all your experience?

ALBRIGHT: I do believe so. I think that they do want to work something out. The question is what is the best way, what is the timing on it, and then what are the arrangements? I mean, this is all taking place in China. We are there as diplomats and there has to be a variety of ways in terms of visas and what the arrangements are.

AMANPOUR: Is it incredible that actually secretary of state and the Treasury Secretary are there right now, Hillary Clinton and Tim Geithner? Does that add pressure to the Chinese? Does it make it more or less easy to resolve this?

ALBRIGHT: I think it obviously makes it more complicated because I think these talks that Secretary Clinton and Secretary Geithner having are part of a more regular way that we are now talking with the Chinese on a whole host of issues.

I think, as you pointed out, our relationships with China are now very complex across the board. And so having this part of it, I think, is an added problem, not exactly -- I mean, they have so much business to conduct.

AMANPOUR: You, when you were secretary of state, had to deal with some of these issues as well. There was the dissident Harry Wu, there was a whole sort of report that you presented to China about human rights. What is it like negotiating with them on these issues?

ALBRIGHT: Well, what they know and we know that we will always raise human rights, I always did. I know Secretary Clinton has and will continue to do so. And at the same time, there's an awful lot of business that goes on. They always raise Taiwan.

And there are a series of issues that are always on the table that you talk about. It's the order that you talk them about, and then I think they know it, and I think we are true to our values by talking about them, and especially when there is a specific case.

AMANPOUR: You remember a time, obviously, when certainly under pressure from the U.S. Congress, America, you know, held human rights as the sort of top agenda for relations with China. Now, as I said, it is often done in private, much more than putting it publicly at the top of the agenda. I asked Nancy Pelosi, one of the senior members of the United States Congress, and she said, well, look, I think that time has passed, you know, that was 20 years ago. The United States decided to ride the Chinese tiger, and China will decide when we don't anymore.

Is that a dilemma?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think, look, we do know that the -- what I believe, that the most important relationship that's out there now in the 21st century is the one with China. Every time anybody talks about it, they say rising. We have a great deal at stake in relegating to them.

But I do need to say the following thing, Christiane: if something is raised in private rather than public, it doesn't mean that it's not at the top of the agenda. I think there are different ways of doing it. And sometimes raising it in private is more effective than raising it in public. But I can assure you that it is always raised.

AMANPOUR: Do you think not having it done in public sort of ties the hands perhaps of the diplomats of the president, for instance?

ALBRIGHT: Well, again, it depends exactly on the situation, sometimes raising it in private makes it possible to move the process forward because there's always this business about saving face. And I think that now it is a very complicated situation.

And as Professor Cohen said, clearly somebody changed their mind. And I think that -- I would believe, knowing the people involved in this that these were very, very careful negotiations.

AMANPOUR: Let's turn to your book, "Prague Winter," an extraordinary story of personal discovery and all the things that you went through, which were incredible. Yes, we know that you discovered shortly before becoming secretary of state that you were actually born Jewish and it was a big shock to you.

You've obviously had to think about this a lot. What do you think? What would the reasons, do you think, be your parents kept that from you and never told you?

ALBRIGHT: Well, all of it is speculation. And but I do know the following things about my parents, was their amazing value system, their dedication to human rights and justice and democracy. But what I believe happened is we came to the United States in 1948.

The Communists had just taken over Czechoslovakia. It was the second time they had to leave their country. The first time when the Nazis invaded, and all of a sudden we were in a new country, a very nuclear family, just the three children and my parents. And I believe they wanted to put this all behind them and not lay it all on us.

We were -- I was 11 years old and my siblings younger. And that's what I think, that it was a protection, something where it was so sad for them and why burden us with it? But what I don't -- what I'm really fascinated by is how my parents managed to exist in what seemed like a normal circumstance with all this sadness. And that's what I explored in the book.

AMANPOUR: You also recount -- and it has been recounted -- that it sort of came up, and you started to talk about it. You started to know about it during the confirmation process, when you were becoming secretary of state and you were asked, after a whole load of questions and investigation, is there anything else that you needed to say, and you say - -

ALBRIGHT: But this is what happened, is that basically when I first became ambassador to U.N., all of a sudden, there were profiles of me on CNN. And I started getting letters from people, where the facts and the dates and the people were wrong.

And finally in November '96, I got a letter that had everything, the right names and the right dates, and I was just being vetted for secretary of state. And they ask you questions about taxes and things. And finally that question, is there anything that you haven't told that we might have asked you, and I said, well, I have reason to believe that I have a Jewish background.

And they said so what? The president isn't anti-Semitic. And so I talked to my children over the holidays. They thought it added to the interesting complexity and the background. They loved my parents, and so it made them see that.

It wasn't so much a -- knowing that you're Jewish is one thing. Then finding out that 24 members of your family have actually been -- died in concentration camps is horrific. And that is the harder part, I think, to absorb.

AMANPOUR: And your life, though, in Czechoslovakia and the stories that you heard from your parents, and the fact that Czechoslovakia was this unique, for a period of time anyway, I guess between World War I and the Nazi invasion, a unique European democracy.

It had all these ideals that everybody holds so dear. How did that affect you as you came to the United States, what lessons did you learn from that, even though it was before you were born?

ALBRIGHT: Well, there's several, frankly, and it was a unique country and it was created at great extent by the United States, Woodrow Wilson and the 14 Points, and the issues of self-determination and the fragility of democracy.

I think the other thing I also learned is what happens when major powers make decisions over the heads of small countries. The British and French basically gave away Czechoslovakia to the Germans and I think that that was a lesson. But the fragility of democracy and the importance of being a good patriot and caring about your country without having it curdle into hate of somebody else.

AMANPOUR: You also learned -- and you speak in your book -- and you've talked before about leadership, you have this whole debate between what Tolstoy thought, that leadership was about the people coming up and creating change from there. You believe in the power of great leaders.

ALBRIGHT: I definitely do. I think there -- a lot of history is -- depends on individual initiative and leaders. But what I think I learned mainly out of this book is that you -- leaders can't operate on the basis of wishful thinking.

So Chamberlain hoped that Hitler would be different. Roosevelt hoped that Stalin would be different. And that decisions have to be fact-based, and they're very hard. And the other part, Christiane, is that they're not always black-and-white decisions. I think they are -- they're tendencies of gray.

It's very, very hard to make good moral decisions, how you put them within the overall context. And I think it relates to the earlier conversation about Mr. Chen.

AMANPOUR: Well, yes, and actually about some of the things that you had to deal with as secretary of state, things that I covered as a journalist. Let's say Bosnia. Where did that, those values sort of lead you in terms of Bosnia and Kosovo?

ALBRIGHT: Well, let me say I was involved in all that before I knew about my Jewish background, so it certainly came as a result of watching what had happened in World War II. I am a child of World War II.

And I think that the values there were when you actually reported on watching people being put on trains and being sent to labor camps and looking like people out of World War II, and that we had a responsibility to do something about it.

And I really felt -- and it was very much the same thing. What had happened was Neville Chamberlain had said, why should we care about some faraway place with places with unpronounceable names? And that was exactly what was going on in Bosnia.

And so that was the motivation. And I knew about that country, because my father had been the Czechoslovakian ambassador to Yugoslavia. So I felt very strongly.

AMANPOUR: And intervening, as we all now know, brought a peace that still lasts. And when you intervened in Kosovo, it was a preemptive intervention that prevented genocide. So I guess that leads me straight on to Syria. It's not genocide, but there is a whole-scale (sic) slaughter of civilians there.

What should leadership be doing? We keep hearing that Syria's different. It's not Libya. It's not Bosnia. But look, thousands of people have been slaughtered, men, women and children. At what point is it enough?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think there are differences, obviously. I mean, for instance, what I think happened in World War II was they were feeding the beast, appeasing Hitler. There is no appeasement of Bashar al-Assad.

What I find very interesting is that the international community is kind of going through the toolbox, very strong sanctions, diplomatic activity, the use of multilateral diplomacy, and not taking any option off the table.

It is difficult, and this is one of those aspects about fact-based decision-making and what is going on in the region, and looking at different things, humanitarian assistance, humanitarian corridors, trying - - U.S. doing logistical support in a humanitarian way, and I think they're systematically looking at what makes sense, and what I call the doability doctrine.

Can you really get something done? And my sense is that the international community, with the U.S. in the lead, is looking at that.

AMANPOUR: And you also coined the phrase, "America, the indispensable nation." Again, does leadership come to a point where all the things that you've just mentioned is not producing the results you want, and there needs to be some kind of more strict action taken?

ALBRIGHT: Obviously. But I think the question is timing and what and when -- indispensable, you know, I did say that and but it never meant alone. There's nothing about that. It means American engagement.

And I have the sense that America's very much engaged at looking at what to do about this. Turkey is playing a very important role, and that there's a great deal of work and analysis and very conscious thinking about what the best thing to do is.

But I think -- I know everybody gets tired of hearing this, but it is complicated. And it is in a very difficult region. It could explode outwards. I think that they're looking at all of the elements that make this a difficult situation. But what is different is that nobody is appeasing Assad. He knows that he is being isolated. And I think that makes it a very different situation from the beginning of World War II.

AMANPOUR: So much more to talk about, but Madeleine Albright, thank you very much for being here.

ALBRIGHT: Thank you so much, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: And our focus on human rights violations and Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng in particular may be reaching a worldwide audience. But when it comes to mainland China, it's hit a wall, the great firewall of China. During the break, you can follow us on Twitter. Every day we tweet the links to our full-length episodes, which are online. And that's at We'll be right back.



AMANPOUR: And now for our final thought, as we mentioned earlier in the program, in certain parts of China, the story of Chen Guangcheng is virtually unknown. Take a look at this. It's a television monitor on the wall of our office in Beijing, CNN's Beijing bureau, and there is our reporter, Stan Grant. He just was on air until, of course, the moment right now when the censors had their way.

A colleague in Beijing tells me that the plug was also pulled on this program a few days ago, when we were discussing the Chen case. And it's not just television that's being censored. The great firewall of China, they call it, that's the Chinese government's massive effort to censor the Internet.

They haven't just banned searches of Chen's name, but words also that are linked to it, like the name of his hometown, or the word "embassy," even the word "blindman." And by the way, today has been proclaimed World Press Freedom Day by the United Nations.

Look at this big map. Well, we do have a big map, and guess which country won't be holding a celebration? All the way up there, the top right hand corner, that's a lot of China and a lot of Russia.

That's it for today's program. You did hear the former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and our first guest, Mr. Cohen, say they believe that Chen may very well be brought out to the United States. Thank you so much for watching. Goodbye from New York.