The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (a bureaucratic second-line player in the Chinese system) has now promised to treat any request by Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng to leave China just like any other citizen, even as the U.S. State Department promises that there are fellowships waiting for him in the U.S.

This follows the dramatic flight by Chen to the U.S. embassy after two years of house arrest and periodic beatings, only to then walk out of the U.S. compound. Complicating this situation is the revelation that U.S. authorities apparently helped Chen reach the U.S. embassy, where he stayed for six days. Ambassador Gary Locke said, “We undertook almost like a ‘Mission Impossible’ retrieval to bring him into the Embassy.”

Administration officials then went from “Mission Impossible” to “Mission Accomplished,” declaring that they had reached a win-win solution with the Chinese. Chen would be admitted to a hospital to receive treatment for injuries received during his harrowing escape; he would then be freed from house arrest, relocated, and even allowed to resume legal studies at any of several universities. American officials would accompany him—with the implication that it would be an extended escort.

But no written commitment was obtained by the Administration of any of the Chinese commitments—all of which involved Chinese concessions to the dissident, an unprecedented move by Beijing. Moreover, no sooner had Chen been admitted to a Chinese hospital than American officials disappeared. And Chen’s friends were soon reporting that Chen had only agreed to the deal because of threats to his wife.

U.S officials repeatedly claim that they knew Chen never wanted to leave China. One has to wonder whether the U.S regularly stages “Mission Impossible” efforts, with U.S personnel in jeopardy and taking great risks, for people who have no intention of defecting. Moreover, Chen was at the U.S embassy for almost a week. Did no one explain to him what might happen if he surrendered himself back to the Chinese authorities?

Instead, American descriptions painted a picture of detailed options involving extensive Chinese cooperation, with no “skepticism about the Chinese government’s willingness to follow through on its promises.” Was the American side naïve about how much China would cooperate with a known dissident? Or were they simply eager to get him to leave? Disturbingly, Chen has indicated that he reached his decision in part because American officials had encouraged him to leave “to a certain degree.” Several reports suggest that U.S officials passed along Chinese threats to Chen’s wife.

Wang Lijun, a former top police official from Chongqing, appeared at the U.S consulate in Chengdu and then left “voluntarily” into the hands of Chinese security officials. (He’s not been seen since.) The question, then, is whether there is a change in American policy underway toward potential defectors.

Wang was no poster child for human rights—but he would have been a potential gold mine of insider information on everything from the ongoing Chinese leadership transition to details about key Chinese leaders to the workings of China’s security apparatus. Chen, by contrast, is a long-time activist concerned with women’s rights, exposing abuses in China’s family-planning policy.

Administration defenders insist that neither Wang nor Chen actually wanted to defect, in which case there must be something in the water in China, as dissidents and police officials suddenly appear at U.S diplomatic compounds, placing themselves at enormous risk yet having no interest in defecting. Or is this a way for the U.S. to make clear to the Chinese that, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated in February 2009, human rights “can’t interfere” with broader U.S–China relations?

Whether a case of mass wanderlust on the part of various Chinese figures or a change in U.S policy or even just bizarre coincidence, what should be clear is that Administration actions toward these men are affecting perceptions of U.S policy toward Chinese defector more generally. Insofar as they raise questions about American resolve, adeptness, and competency, the American approach seems to be neither “Mission Impossible” nor “Mission Accomplished” but “Mission Fail.”