Radically differing accounts of the circumstances under which crusading Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng left the protection of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing had critics of the plan wondering Wednesday whether the U.S. officials who’d brokered the deal planned poorly or were tragically naive.
After a round of optimistic State Department briefings and statements in which officials said the authoritarian Chinese government had given its word that it would ensure Chen’s safety, allegations surfaced that the self-taught lawyer had agreed to leave the embassy only because he thought that his family essentially was being held hostage.
A close friend said in a series of online Twitter postings that Chen, who’s been blind since childhood, had contacted her and said he’d left U.S. custody out of fear for his wife’s safety. Chen had been willing to leave China if his family could’ve accompanied him, Zeng Jinyan wrote.
Zeng wasn’t reachable by phone Wednesday evening, though her husband, who was traveling, said he’d spoken with her and had confirmed that the conversation with Chen had taken place.
“The (Chinese) authorities brought his wife to Beijing, and said that he must leave (the embassy), so Guangcheng was forced to leave,” said Hu Jia, who’s also a Chen confidant.
The Associated Press reported that Chen himself told one of its reporters that he’d decided to depart the embassy after six days of hiding when a U.S. official told him that Chinese authorities had threatened to beat his wife to death if he remained.
If some or all of the assertions prove to be true, it would be a considerable blow to the Obama administration during an election year at home and, more broadly, to American standing in China. Republican members of Congress have been critical of the administration’s policies toward China, saying the administration hasn’t taken a strong enough stand against the communist government’s persistent abuse of its critics.
A statement released Wednesday by the China Aid Association, a U.S.-based Christian human-rights group that’s in regular contact with Chen, said "relevant reports show unfortunately the U.S. side has abandoned Mr. Chen."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland denied in a statement Wednesday that U.S. officials had spoken with Chen about physical threats to his family or that Chinese officials had made any.
However, she acknowledged that, “U.S. interlocutors did make clear that if Chen elected to stay in the embassy, Chinese officials had indicated to us that his family would be returned to Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for reunification.”
For Chen, who’s said that he and his wife had been beaten severely in their home province, that message probably carried the certainty that his family would be harmed if he didn’t allow himself to be given to the Chinese government. In a video recorded last week after he successfully fled house arrest in Shandong province in eastern China, Chen said that during his 19 months of captivity his wife was assaulted so badly that she suffered a broken bone near her left eye and serious damage to her ribs and lower back.
Earlier in the day Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had issued a statement lauding China’s guarantee of Chen’s safety.
“I am pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng’s stay and departure from the U.S. Embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values,” Clinton said.
She added: “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.”
Teng Biao, a Beijing human rights lawyer and longtime colleague of Chen’s, expressed skepticism about the deal even before the latest details were known.
“His friends are very worried about his safety. If he leaves the embassy, then his safety has no guarantee,” Teng said. Asked about Beijing’s assurance of well-being for Chen, Teng replied: “I have no trust in it.”
The seeming resolution of Chen’s presence in the embassy at first appeared to have headed off what was expected to be tension during two days of high-level talks set to begin Thursday among Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts over a wide range of issues. But the suggestion that Chen had left the embassy under conditions that were less favorable than U.S. officials had said roiled Washington.
The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a panel of members of Congress and Obama administration officials that monitors U.S. relations with China, announced that it would hold an emergency session Thursday.
Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., the chairman of the commission, said he was concerned about Chen’s safety. "He’s in a precarious situation,” Smith said, describing himself as “disappointed” when he first heard the news that Chen had left the embassy.
"I said from the beginning, ‘Who is going to monitor this?’ " Smith said. " ‘How will it be enforced?’ China is not a safe place for any dissident."
Smith said he also wanted to know how insistent State Department officials had been in negotiating Chen’s departure and whether officials had pushed for a solution so as not to derail the planned talks on other topics.
"I hope they weren’t operating on a get the desk cleared so the more important things can take place" basis, he said. "Human rights should be the most important priority that we have."
State Department officials in Washington and Beijing said Chen’s departure from the embassy had been voluntary.
“We respected Mr. Chen’s free will, both his desire to depart the embassy, which he did . . . of his own free will, and most fundamentally his consistently stated desire to stay and work in his own country and to continue his work,” said one diplomat, who spoke to reporters on the condition that he not be identified.
The official, who was involved with the negotiations, said that Ambassador Gary Locke had asked Chen, “ ‘Are you ready to go?’ And he sat there and he said . . . ‘Let’s go.’ And he stood up and we walked out together.”
A second State Department official at the briefing said, “Throughout his stay at the embassy – and I’m talking about numerous discussions – Mr. Chen made it clear that he wanted to remain in China with his family, and, frankly, he wanted to participate with what he thinks is ongoing in China, which is a very exciting, dynamic period that he believes that he has an important role to play, as do we.”
Chen, who’s 40, was delivered Wednesday to a Beijing hospital, where he was treated for a foot he’d injured when fleeing. Reporters who tried to speak with him there caught only a fleeting glimpse of Chen, a small man in a white shirt and sunglasses, being pushed down a corridor in a wheelchair. A large number of security officers then shoved the group of journalists into a holding pen – fashioned with gates and benches they’d dragged over – and took photographs of their identification cards before pushing them into elevators.
Chen had been sentenced to 51 months in prison in 2006 – on trumped-up charges of damaging property and assembling a crowd to block traffic – after he’d campaigned on behalf of women who’d undergone forced sterilizations and abortions amid a local government campaign to enforce China’s one-child population control policy.
Upon being released from prison in September 2010, Chen was placed under home detention even though he hadn’t been charged with any additional crimes.
After news of Chen’s departure from the U.S. Embassy became public, the Chinese state news wire Xinhua said Wednesday that its government was demanding an apology from the Americans. It quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin as saying that, "What the U.S. side has done has interfered in the domestic affairs of China, and the Chinese side will never accept it.”
Many were dubious of the arrangement from the start.
“There is good reason for skepticism about whether the Chinese government is both willing and able to deliver on the conditional release of Chen Guangcheng from U.S. diplomatic protection to a ‘safe’ location in China, particularly since neither side has identified that location or defined how it will be safe for Chen and his family,” Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said not long after the deal was announced.
Researcher Joyce Zhang in Beijing and Lesley Clark and Matthew Schofield in Washington contributed to this article.