When blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng left the US Embassy in Beijing on Wednesday, having sheltered there for six days after escaping from illegal house arrest, the Chinese government promised that he would be treated “humanely,” according to a US official who had helped negotiate his freedom.
Nothing was said, however, about the safety of his friends and family, and the fate that some of them have suffered in recent days apparently made Mr. Chen decide that he no longer trusted government assurances that he could live peacefully in China
The original plan, according to people involved in the negotiations, was that Chen would go to study law at Tianjin, an industrial port 70 miles from Beijing, where he would no longer be harassed or beaten by the thugs employed by the local authorities in his hometown of Linyi, in Shandong province, where he and his family had been held against their will for 19 months.
Within hours, however, Chen had changed his mind, saying he feared for his safety and preferred to go abroad. On Friday, a Chinese Foreign ministry spokesman said he could “go through the normal procedures at a related department according to the law, like any other Chinese citizen” wanting to study abroad.
Chen, who has suffered for seven years at the hands of the authorities, either in jail or under house arrest, had reasons to worry about his future treatment here, to judge by the experience this week of people close to him.
His wife, Yuan Weijing, was detained by police when her husband’s escape was discovered, and tied to a chair without food or drink for two days, Chen told reporters from the hospital where he is now undergoing medical tests and treatment for a broken foot suffered during his escape.
He Peirong, a family friend who drove Chen from his hometown to Beijing, was arrested by police in the southern city of Nanjing, where she lives, and held for several days before being allowed to go home. She has since posted a message on her Twitter account saying the police have forbidden her to talk to reporters.
Jiang Tianyong, a lawyer who tried to visit Chen in hospital on Thursday evening, was taken away by police and returned home at 3:00 a.m. on Friday morning after having been beaten up so badly that he had lost his hearing in one ear, his wife said in a post on Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media platform.
Guo Yushan, an NGO activist who also helped Chen stay out of police hands between his escape and his arrival at the US Embassy, was held by police for two days before being freed.
Zeng Jinyan, a noted human rights activist and friend of Chen’s who first alerted the world to Chen’s fears for his safety with Twitter posts on Wednesday, has been confined to her home by police, she said on Twitter Thursday. She asked reporters not to call her, for fear of retribution.
US officials said when Chen left the embassy that they would carefully monitor the activist’s fate, to ensure that he was no longer persecuted. That was itself never going to be easy. But the manner in which Chen’s associates have been treated over the past few days seem to have convinced him that, for the time being at least, he and his family can feel secure only outside China’s borders.