A US-brokered deal to win freedom for Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng appeared to be unraveling in the early hours of Thursday morning, as Mr. Chen, who is blind, indicated he feared for his safety and had changed his mind about wanting to stay in China.
In late night telephone conversations from the hospital where he was under observation, Chen told news outlets that no US diplomats had stayed to protect him, that he was scared and that he wanted to go abroad with his family.
His lawyer Teng Biao confirmed Chen’s change of heart in a Twitter post. “Guangcheng wanted to stay in China at the beginning but now it is very possible he has changed his mind,” he wrote. “I clearly felt his thoughts changing” over the course of six phone calls on Wednesday evening, Mr. Teng said. “Whether he left the embassy because he was threatened or for other reasons, now he obviously feels unsafe.”
Chen, a figurehead of the Chinese human rights movement, sought refuge at the US Embassy in Beijing last week after escaping from guards who he said had kept him and his family under illegal house arrest for 19 months, beating them repeatedly.
In a US-backed deal with the Chinese government, Chen left the embassy Wednesday with US Ambassador Gary Locke to meet his wife and two children at a hospital, where he was treated for a foot injury he sustained during his daring escape from his heavily guarded home in Linyi, Shandong province.
A senior US official said at the time that Beijing had acceded to Chen’s request to stay and live unmolested in China, and that Washington would “look to confirm at regular intervals that the commitments he has received are carried out.”
Police waiting at the hospital
Within hours, however, Chen found himself apparently without US protection in a hospital where activists said security officials from Shandong and plainclothes police had been waiting for him.
A close friend and well known human rights activist Zeng Jinyan told the Monitor that Chen wanted to leave China with his family, following threats by Chinese foreign ministry officials of physical violence against his wife and children.
“My biggest wish is to leave the country with my family and rest for a while,” Chen told Channel 4.
The blind lawyer told AP that a US diplomat at the hospital had relayed to him Chinese threats that his wife would have been beaten to death had he not left the embassy. US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland denied that, telling reporters that no US official spoke to Chen “about physical and legal threats to his wife and children.”
She acknowledged, however, that “Chinese officials did indicate Chen’s family would be returned to Shandong if Chen elected to stay in the embassy.”
In a video released on YouTube after his escape from Shandong, Chen recounted repeated beatings that he and his wife had suffered at the hands of his guards during his detention. Fears for his wife’s safety apparently began to prey on his mind while he was in the hospital reflecting on the deal he had reached with the Chinese government.
US officials said that while he was in the embassy Chen had insisted that he wanted to stay in China, and Ms. Zeng, wife of noted HIV/Aids activist Hu Jia, said that Chen’s wife had told her that it was she who had persuaded her husband to leave the embassy in order to reunite with his family.
“On the phone tonight Chen Guangcheng told me for the first time that his whole family wanted to leave,” Zeng wrote in a Twitter post.
'Nobody from the embassy is here'
In his conversation with Channel 4, Chen seemed alarmed to find himself and his family alone in the hospital. “Nobody from the [US] embassy is here,” the station quoted him as saying. “I don’t understand why. They promised to be here.”
Mr. Teng released a transcript of his calls to Chen on Wednesday evening during which he urged the activist to reconsider his decision to stay in China, warning him that it would be “very dangerous” and suggesting that he should call the US Embassy. A little after 10:00 p.m., according to the transcript, Chen said he had tried to ring the embassy “but nobody picked up the phone.”
Foreign human rights activists had expressed surprise at the deal under which Chen was expected to be moved to a safe location in China to take up law studies, rather than go into exile.
“There was always a possibility that he would stay, but I am not sure why anyone would take Chinese assurances at face value,” says Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights expert in Hong Kong. “There is not much reason to do that.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Beijing for a long planned round of the US-Chinese Strategic and Economic Dialog, said after Chen’s emergence from the embassy that he had “a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future” and that “making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task.
“The United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr. Chen and his family in the days, weeks, and years ahead,” Ms. Clinton said