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U.S. diplomats defended their handling of a deal that led legal activist Chen Guangcheng to give up the safety of the American embassy, after he said he’d been pressured to leave and now fears for his family’s wellbeing.
Chen, who earlier decided that he wanted to remain in China, had a “change of heart” and U.S. officials spoke with him and his wife twice today about what to do next, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters. Chen, a blind activist who had protested forced abortions and sterilizations in China, was taken to a hospital in Beijing yesterday, after he escaped extralegal detention at his home in eastern China late last month and fled to the embassy.
“We need to consult with them further, get a better sense of what they want to do and together, consider their options,” Nuland said. Ambassador Gary Locke said earlier today Chen “was never pressured to leave” and that officials had “waited for him to make his decision.”
Chen’s reversal upended an agreement worked out between China and the U.S., overshadowing annual talks in Beijing that are being attended by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. His criticism of the way the U.S. negotiated his case may expose President Barack Obama to accusations from Republicans that he’s failing to protect a prominent Chinese rights activist.
“This is a big win for the Chinese authorities because the attention ought to be focused on the wrongdoing which was apparently done by either national or local officials to Chen,” said Bates Gill, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “These developments will become a U.S. domestic political distraction to criticize Obama and his approach to China.”
Chen told CNN that after his escape his wife had been tied to a chair in the family home for two days by police who threatened to beat her to death. In an interview with The Associated Press, he said that while he’d been told he would be safe in China, he began to fear for his family’s safety and felt the U.S. had pressured him to leave the embassy.
In remarks she delivered at the opening of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks today, Clinton shortened a section of her prepared text that touched on human rights, saying the U.S. “raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” because it believes all governments must heed their citizens’ “aspirations for dignity and the rule of law.” In the prepared remarks, she said the U.S. continued “to look to China to meet its international obligations to protect universal human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Chinese President Hu Jintao said his country and the U.S. should “prove that the traditional belief that big powers are bound to enter into confrontation and conflicts is wrong” and that they should be committed to a “cooperative partnership.”
After Chen left the embassy, U.S. officials described a deal with Chinese authorities permitting him and his family to relocate in China so he could study law in safety, and said the U.S. would monitor China’s compliance.
“The embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised to be with me at the hospital,” Chen told CNN, according to a transcript. “But this afternoon soon after we got here, they were all gone. I’m very disappointed at the U.S. government.”
Locke said Chen’s wife had urged him to come to the hospital to be reunited.
“We asked him what did he want to do, did he want to leave, was he ready to leave,” Locke said. “We waited several minutes and suddenly he jumped up very eager, very ready and said, ‘Let’s go,’ in front of many, many witnesses.”
U.S. officials said China promised that Chen would be treated humanely. The foreign ministry demanded the U.S. apologize for allowing Chen into the embassy.
Chen’s flight to the U.S. Embassy came as the Communist Party investigates Bo Xilai, the Chongqing party secretary whose wife Gu Kailai is suspected of involvement in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. The allegations about Heywood were exposed by Bo’s former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, who spent a night at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in February and was later taken into custody by Chinese authorities.
On the way to the hospital yesterday, Chen, a self-taught lawyer, asked to speak with Clinton by phone, U.S. officials said yesterday. He expressed gratitude for her support, told Clinton he was prepared for the struggle ahead and said in English, “I want to kiss you,” they said.
“Mr. Chen has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment,” Clinton said, according to an e-mailed statement yesterday. “Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task.”
The arrangement would remove Chen from persecution by local officials in Shandong province. Chinese officials also agreed to investigate his extralegal detention and alleged abuses by local officials, according to U.S. officials.
Jerome Cohen, a friend of Chen’s and professor at the New York University School of Law, said he spoke with the activist during his embassy refuge. Chen was told by U.S. diplomats that a prolonged embassy stay would become a form of incommunicado detention, cut off from his family and unable to rely on the embassy for communications, Cohen said in a conference call with reporters.
Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, a Washington policy group, said a message that Chen’s family would be returned to Shandong if he didn’t leave the embassy could be seen as a veiled threat given their previous treatment by local authorities.
“That seems bad, very bad,” Cheng said in a telephone interview yesterday.
Bob Fu, president of Midland, Texas-based ChinaAid, a human rights group, said yesterday he had spoken with three people who have had contact with Chen. “We can clearly tell you that Chen Guangcheng wants to leave China with his family,” Fu said.
Fu said Chen’s comment to Clinton was misunderstood and he had said, “I want to see you,” not “I want to kiss you.” The U.S. has “abandoned” the activist, Fu said in a telephone interview.
Chen had injured his foot after jumping over a wall during his escape from detention at his home. He had been held under house arrest without charges since he was released from prison in September 2010.
Chen made his way to the U.S. embassy “via abnormal means” and China is “strongly dissatisfied,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said yesterday in a statement that also demanded a U.S. apology.
Chen, who was blinded by a fever in infancy and was illiterate until his 20s, was jailed for more than four years after filing a lawsuit protesting forced sterilizations. After his release in September 2010, he and his wife were confined to their home. In a video recorded after his escape, Chen said reports that he and his family were beaten during his house arrest were true.
To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Beijing at email@example.com; Michael Forsythe in Beijing at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at email@example.com