Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese human rights activist and lawyer who took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after escaping from extralegal house arrest in Shandong province last week, left U.S. protection on Wednesday and went to a hospital in Beijing. U.S. State Department officials say that he only departed after the Chinese government — which is demanding an apology from the U.S. for sheltering Chen “via abnormal means” — made assurances that he would be safe. Americans officials said that Chen would be allowed to study law in the university town of Tianjin, far away from his home town where he had been harassed and intimidated for years.
But controversy, and tensions, remain as to how Chen’s case was handled by both governments and will likely overshadow the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, talks that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton only just arrived in Beijing for. Hours after it was announced that Chen was no longer in the U.S. Embassy and had reunited with his wife, Yuan Weijing, and daughter and son (whom he had not seen in years), his lawyer, Teng Biao, said that Chen no longer felt safe in China and had “changed his mind.” According to the BBC, Chen has said that he feels “let down” by the U.S. CNN has quoted Chen making an appeal to President Barack Obama:
“I would like to say to President Obama – please do everything you can to get our family out.”
According to Virginia Nuland, U.S. State Department spokeswoman, Chen said during his six days in the U.S. Embassy that he did not wish to seek asylum in the U.S. and that he wished to remain in China.
Chen, who did not receive a formal education due to his disability and speaks broken English, spoke to Clinton over the phone as he was leaving the embassy. According to a U.S. official, he reportedly said to her “I would like to kiss you”; he subsequently told reporters that he had said he would like to “see” her.
Similar confusion has arisen about some other statements relayed between Chen and U.S. officials, notes the New York Times:
…in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from his hospital bed late Wednesday evening, Mr. Chen said American officials told him while he was under American protection that Chinese authorities had threatened to beat his wife to death unless Mr. Chen left the American embassy, and that Mr. Chen therefore left under coercion.
An American official denied that account. The official said Mr. Chen was told that his wife, Yuan Weijing, who had been brought to Beijing by the Chinese authorities while Mr. Chen was in the American Embassy, would not be allowed to remain in the capital unless Mr. Chen left the embassy to see her. She would be sent back to Mr. Chenís home village in Shandong, where no one could guarantee her safety.
In speaking to Britainís Channel 4 News, Chen also expressed “regret” that he was no longer under American protection.
Negotiations between U.S and Chinese officials started on April 26, with American negotiators meeting with their counterparts from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and relaying details to Chen, who remained at the Embassy and did not meet directly with Chinese officials.
Bob Fu, president of the United States-based China Aid association which has advocated for Chen and other Chinese activists, said that he feared that the U.S. has “abandoned” Chen and expressed concern that he had not left the U.S. Embassy voluntarily. Citing “reliable sources,” Fu said Chen had only left the Embassy because the Chinese government had made “serious threats to his immediate family.”
As the BBC’s Michael Bristow comments, “It is difficult to see how Mr Chen has been given guarantees that will allow him to carry on his activism, inside China, if that is the life he chooses to pursue.” The U.S. has only “limited scope” to hold China to the promises made about Chen’s safety. †The dispute over Chen could still “turn into a crisis,” says Bristow, and “the timing could not have been worse” with the Sino-American strategic talks about topics ranging from North Korea to the global economy scheduled to begin on Thursday. China, says the†New York Times, “regards foreign criticism of its human rights policies and practices as undue interference in its internal affairs” and this point will surely be raised by Chinese officials.
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