China-U.S. ties strained by blind activist's desire to leave

Chen Guangcheng is asking to leave China with his family and go to the United States; his decision comes in the midst of a high-level meeting in Beijing between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese officials.

US Embassy Beijing Press Office/HO/AP
Blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng is helped by US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell as they leave the US embassy for a hospital in Beijing May 2. Op-ed contributor Nicholas Burns says that 'what separates America and China is the huge ideological gulf between us on the core issue of human freedom.'

The diplomatic disarray deepened Thursday after a blind activist reversed course and asked to leave China with his family, abandoning an arduously negotiated agreement even though he had left the protection of the U.S. Embassy and was in a Beijing hospital ringed by Chinese police.

Bewildered and alone with his wife and children, Chen Guangcheng periodically switched on a cell phone to tell friends and foreign media he felt scared and wanted to go abroad, and that he had not seen U.S. officials in over a day.

He even called in to a congressional hearing in Washington, telling lawmakers he wanted to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "I hope I can get more help from her," Chen said.

Chen's high-profile effort to keep his case in the public eye served to increase pressure on Washington and embarrass Beijing as it hosted Clinton and other U.S. officials for annual talks on global political and economic hotspots.

Taken aback at Chen's change of heart, U.S. diplomats spent much of Thursday trying to confirm that the family wanted to leave, and they eventually said they would try to help him. Still, it remained unclear how they might do so now that he has left the embassy, or whether the Chinese would be willing to renegotiate a deal that both sides thought had been settled a day earlier.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner confirmed U.S. officials weren't able to see Chen in person Thursday but spoke twice with him by telephone, and once with his wife, Yuan Weijing, outside the hospital.

"It's our desire to meet with him tomorrow or in the coming days," Toner said. "But I can't speak to whether we'll have access to him. I just don't know."

Earlier, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said U.S. officials would continue to work with Chen and his wife to try to find a satisfactory new solution. "We need to consult with them further to get a better sense of what they want to do and consider their options," Nuland said.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration's handling of the case drew sharp criticism from Mitt Romney and Republican lawmakers. Campaigning in Virginia, the Republican presidential candidate said reports that American officials allowed Chen to leave the embassy represented a "dark day for freedom" and a "day of shame for the Obama administration."

Rep. Frank Wolf, a fierce Beijing critic, told the congressional hearing held to discuss Chen's case that the Obama administration's handling of it was "naive," adding that "a purported diplomatic triumph evolved into a diplomatic fiasco."

In a phone call from his hospital room in Beijing, Chen told lawmakers: "I want to meet with Secretary Clinton. ... I want to thank her face to face."

He also expressed fears for the lives of his other family members, including his mother and brothers, and voiced concern that people in his home village were suffering retribution for helping him.

"I want to thank all of you for all your care and all your love," he concluded, speaking in Chinese that was translated into English by a rights activist at the hearing.

A self-taught lawyer, the 40-year-old Chen became an international human rights figure and inspiration to many ordinary Chinese after running afoul of local government officials for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations carried out as part of China's one-child policy. Until his escape last week, his nearly seven years in prison and abusive house arrest with his wife, 6-year-old daughter and mother fueled outrage and added to his stature — and in turn upped the stakes for Washington in helping him.

Chen said throughout his six-day stay at the U.S. Embassy that his desire was to remain in China with his family, and U.S. diplomats said that was their goal in negotiations with Chinese officials.

After several days of talks, U.S. officials said they extracted a guarantee that Chen would be relocated outside his home province to a university town where he could formally study law. U.S. officials said they would periodically monitor his situation, though they did not specify how.

But hours after a gleeful Chen left the U.S. compound, he changed his mind, driven in part by his wife's tales of abuse and retribution in the days after Chen managed to escape from his rural farmhouse.

Under the deal that brought him out of the embassy, the family was reunited and taken to Chaoyang Hospital, where Chen was treated for a foot injured in his escape. There, Chen's wife told him what had happened after local officials discovered he was gone.

She "told him his family was tied to chairs and interrogated by police, and that his nephew attacked somebody and is on the run outside and might be in life-threatening dangers," said Li Jinsong, Chen's lawyer. "These things undoubtedly have left an impact on him."

Chen also felt abandoned by the U.S., finding no embassy staff at the hospital to assure his protection.

"The embassy told me that they would have someone accompany me the whole time," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview late Wednesday. "I felt they did not tell me the truth on this issue."

On Thursday, Chen sent a message through a friend clarifying that he does not seek asylum from the U.S. but wants to travel or study in the U.S. temporarily. He mentioned he was considering an invitation to visit New York University.

In the Chinese language statement released via email and on the Internet, Chen said he was grateful to Clinton and other U.S. officials and did not feel pressured or forced to leave the U.S. Embassy and did so of his own free will.

An activist lawyer and friend of Chen's, Jiang Tianyong, tried to visit him at the hospital Thursday evening but was taken away by police, Jiang's wife said. Another activist, Zeng Jinyan, who tweeted her conversation with Chen late Wednesday, said in postings Thursday that state security agents told her not to discuss the case anymore.

The unraveling of the deal that set Chen free puts Washington and Beijing at odds at a time both governments are trying to contain their ever sharper jostling for influence around the world.

Having involved itself in the fate of an activist of Chen's stature, the Obama administration can ill afford to abandon him and risk election-year criticism. China's authoritarian leadership is also in the midst of a once-a-decade transition to younger leaders in which taking a hard line against dissent and foreign meddling is politically safe.

"After all the impressive quiet diplomacy shown by both sides in trying to find a solution that would satisfy Chen's goal of remaining as a free citizen in China, now they have to resume negotiations in a much more public way, under scrutiny from political critics and second-guessers in both countries," said Susan Shirk, a former State Department official and a China specialist at University of California-San Diego.

Among the issues to be resolved is whether China will negotiate over its citizens, and if it lets the Chens go, whether they will be allowed to return.

With Chen no longer at the embassy, Washington seemed to have little sway. China's authoritarian government dislikes human rights negotiations in general, seeing its treatment of its citizens as a domestic affair. In Chen's case, the Foreign Ministry has criticized the U.S. for bringing a Chinese citizen into the embassy and harboring him.

"The U.S. has now forfeited a great deal — though not all — leverage in the situation. Possession, as they say, is nine-tenths of the law," said Don Geyser, a retired career foreign service officer who served several tours in Beijing.

Geyser, who was involved in negotiations with Beijing after astrophysicist Fang Lizhi sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, said U.S. officials might have sought a too-hasty resolution to Chen's case ahead of the two-day high-level talks with Clinton that opened Thursday.

Chen's case hovered in the background. In a speech mostly on Syria, North Korea and other global issues, Clinton waded into human rights. "A China that protects the rights of all its citizens will be a stronger and more prosperous nation, and, of course, a stronger partner on behalf of our common goals," she said.

Sidestepping the differences, President Hu Jintao said: "Given our different national conditions, it is impossible for both China and the United States to see eye-to-eye on every issue."

Meanwhile, ensconced in his hospital room, Chen offered one possible solution to the impasse: "My fervent hope," he told the Daily Beast, "is that it would be possible for me and my family to leave for the U.S. on Hillary Clinton's plane."

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