ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Jim Sasser, a former long-time Democratic senator from Tennessee, was the U.S. ambassador in Beijing from 1995 to 1999, and he's here now to talk about this story with us a bit. Hi.
JAMES SASSER: Hi. How are you?
SIEGEL: First, during your time as ambassador, you had some Chinese dissidents who got out of the country with the assistance of the U.S.
SASSER: We did, indeed, Robert. We had one very high-profile dissident, Wei Jingsheng, who came out in 1997 really because of the request of President Clinton. Wei Jingsheng came out, and then later on, one of the Tiananmen demonstrators, Wang Dan. And when the pressure builds to the point that they want to release someone, then they would summon us to the Foreign Ministry, and we'd work out an arrangement for the exchange of the dissident and getting him out of the country.
Now, this was very different from the present situation in which the dissident sought refuge and apparently was granted asylum in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. That did not occur during the late '90s.
SIEGEL: If you were talking about this with the Chinese, do you talk about it explicitly as a human rights matter or is it the humanitarian concerns of an individual? What would you think, as a diplomat?
SASSER: Well, we talk about it from a human rights point of view, and they fall back on the humanitarian aspects of it. And many times, they'll release a dissident under the guise of allowing him to seek medical treatment out of the country, or for medical reasons.
SIEGEL: Well, put me in the mind of a U.S. ambassador, as you were in Beijing, with huge, high-level talks about to take place and a Chinese activist suddenly turns up at the U.S. embassy.
SASSER: Robert, that would be an ambassador's nightmare. And you've got the problem of the Chinese dissident. You're trying to keep your secretary of state happy, and then you've got the problems with the Chinese government. This is a very, very difficult problem. It almost seems insoluble. But I am confident that we'll eventually work it out.
SIEGEL: You were ambassador under President Clinton, at the end of his presidency. In the years since - it's only in the years since that the U.S. has developed a new relationship with China, which is - they hold a massive share of our debt. Does that provide a backdrop for every issue, do you think, nowadays, or is all of that swept aside when it's a question of one dissident activist?
SASSER: I don't think that really has that much impact. Now, our sort of network of commerce between the two countries and our worldwide interest in various and sundry matters, I think, does co-mingle with the human rights issue. For example, on occasion, we may not press the human rights issue as vigorously if we're trying to get cooperation from China on the question of Iran, or on the question of North Korea.
SIEGEL: Could this really reduce Secretary Clinton's leverage in talking about Iran or North Korea, because we have this problem with the Chinese that we didn't count on?
SASSER: Oh, I think it could, yes. In other words, this could create an atmosphere there of anger on the part of the Chinese, an atmosphere of bitterness.
SIEGEL: Which implies that at a high level, these very disparate issues can come together at the table.
SASSER: No question about that. And this matter of human rights in China is very sensitive. And this comes at a time when the Chinese government is undergoing tensions themselves with the problem of Bo Xilai, the problem of a new president hopefully coming on later on this year. The Chinese themselves are really in the midst of what they would call their own elections, similar to the ones that we have here in the United States, from their standpoint.
SIEGEL: Jim Sasser, former ambassador to Beijing, former senator from Tennessee, thanks for talking with us.
SASSER: Thank you, Robert. It's always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.