Chen and Ambassador Locke
Chen and Ambassador Locke Reuters

Tom Clancy's novels are occasionally mimicked by reality. Seven years before 9/11, in his book Debt of Honor, Clancy wrote about a hypothetical American-Japanese conflict ending with a Japanese kamikaze jumbo jet hitting the Capitol building while Congress was in session.

In another book, the Bear and the Dragon, the US intervenes militarily in favor of Russia in a conflict triggered by the murder of a Roman Catholic Cardinal by the Chinese police while protesting the infanticide that sometimes attends the one-child policy in China.

Clancy's plots seem far-fetched on the global level, as Russia and China are frequently in cahoots against the United States. However the ability of a personal human rights case to threaten Sino-American relations due to the one child policy, resurfaced in the Chen Guangcheng affair, highlighting the repercussions of the one child policy in terms of forced sterilizations, abortions and infanticide.

Nobody had illusions about human rights deficiencies in China, but it took the story of a single blind lawyer and his escape from virtual house arrest to temporary sanctuary in the US Embassy to put the issue in relief.

As opposed to Clancy's fictional President Jack Ryan who imposes economic sanctions on China, the positions are reversed today when China holds a much stronger economic position.  Secretary of State Clinton was put in a serious bind.

The timing could not have been worse as Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner were in Beijing to conduct high level talks with the Obama administration, hopeful that relations will improve once the current leadership succession in China has been completed. On the other hand, if Chen had been unceremoniously booted out of the American Embassy, this would have created an outcry in the United States, particularly in a presidential election year.

Therefore the "compromise" was reached under which Chen "voluntarily" left the US Embassy for hospital treatment and reunification with his family as well as immunity from further harassment. The original spin was that Chen wanted to stay in China and therefore the compromise served all the parties.

When the phrase reunited with his family appeared it triggered unpleasant associations. During the Stalinist era purge trials some of the accused were reluctant to confess despite being subjected to torture. One  method used by the interrogators to break them down was to stage a meeting between them and their children thus hinting broadly that their children's safety was dependent on their compliance.

Sure enough AP citing a friend of Chen is reporting that American Embassy officials relayed to Chen a warning that his family would be beaten to death if he stayed within the embassy. The same story reports that Chen wants asylum in the United States as despite the assurances that the Chinese have given to the United States he does not place great credence in them.

Where have you gone Jack Ryan?