As American officials scrambled Thursday to manage an embarrassing and potentially damaging crisis arising from a deal with Chinese authorities over the fate of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, a key question came to the fore: Had American officials abandoned Chen by allowing him to leave his refuge at the U.S. Embassy without any way of ensuring that China would treat him well?
In the 24 hours after arriving at a Beijing hospital from the embassy on Wednesday, Chen issued a variety of conflicting statements about how American diplomats had handled his situation, including dramatic telephone testimony to a congressional hearing in Washington that was delivered in what were the early morning hours of Friday here.
Chen first told CNN at 3 a.m. Thursday that he’d been lobbied by the embassy to leave American protection and was left feeling “very disappointed (with) the U.S. government,” according to a transcript of the conversation. Hours later, however, he’d shifted tone. In a telephone interview with McClatchy, Chen said that “America didn’t betray me. America played a very good role in this matter.” In his telephone testimony to Washington, Chen wasn’t asked his opinion of American authorities’ actions. But he did say that he’d like to meet U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is in Beijing for a previously scheduled high-level meeting on a variety of issues, and “thank her face to face.”
It was not possible to determine what was behind Chen’s apparent switch in sentiment. American diplomats were not allowed to visit him in person on Thursday and had to rely on telephone conversations to gauge his wellbeing and state of mind. It was possible that, without U.S. officials with him, Chen was under pressure by Chinese authorities to be more accepting of the deal that placed him back under their control.
In his interview with McClatchy, Chen said he wanted to leave China with his family “to rest for a period of time” – raising the possibility of an asylum bid, perhaps in the United States. But he also said specifically that he would want to return to China. Asked how long such a trip would last, Chen said, “That depends on the situation, there’s no way to tell.”
In his exchange with McClatchy, Chen mentioned continued worries about his safety and that of his family.
The high-profile decision to deliver Chen to a Chinese facility has grown into a serious controversy for the U.S. State Department and Clinton.
While he’s publicly called for the United States to help him flee China, it was not clear what options the United States has now that Chen, 40, is in Chinese government custody. A senior State Department official in a briefing for reporters in Beijing declined to describe the Chinese government’s position on reopening negotiations about Chen.
“Our understanding now from the contacts that we have had with him and his wife is that his view of what the best thing for him and his family may be may be changing, but we do not yet have a full view of what he wants to do at this stage,” said the senior official, who requested anonymity because the sensitivity of the subject. “When we feel that we have a clear view of what his final decision is, we will do what we can to help him achieve that.”
At Chaoyang Hospital, security guards and police patrolled hallways and stairwells close to where Chen was thought to be receiving attention for a foot injury he suffered when he escaped April 22 from his home in China’s Shandong province, where he and his family had been held under extra-judicial house arrest for 19 months. Chen previously served about four years in prison – on charges of damaging property and organizing a crowd to disrupt traffic _ related to his advocacy work on behalf of women who’d been forced to undergo abortions and sterilizations under Shandong’s campaign to enforce China’s one-child policy.
A U.S. diplomat, Robert Wang, the embassy’s No. 2 official, and an American doctor stood outside a five-story brick hospital building that apparently housed Chen on Thursday. When a McClatchy reporter asked whether it was possible to visit Chen’s room, Wang gestured to guards posted at the building door and said: “Ask them. I don’t control the access. I can’t go in.”
Was the group not going to be allowed to go in at all?
“We don’t know,” Wang said, just after noon.
There were at least 10 plainclothes security guards sitting and standing nearby. Uniformed Chinese police escorted the McClatchy reporter off hospital grounds shortly after the exchange.
An e-mail later in the day to embassy spokesman Richard Buangan seeking clarification of Wang’s comments and whether he later gained access to Chen went unanswered.
Clinton, who arrived this week in Beijing to attend a previously scheduled conference with senior Chinese officials, did not mention Chen by name in her public remarks at the U.S.-Chinese meetings on Thursday. Instead, she spoke about the importance of human rights in general.
“As part of our dialogue, the United States raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms because we believe that all governments do have to answer to citizens’ aspirations for dignity and the rule of law, and that no nation can or should deny those rights,” she said.
CNN on Thursday reported that Chen told a reporter that, “We are in danger. If you can talk to Hillary, I hope she can help my whole family leave China.”
"The embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised to have people stay with me in the hospital," he was quoted as saying. "But . . . as soon as I checked into the hospital room, I noticed they were all gone."
In an account he repeated to other journalists, Chen said that he was particularly upset to learn that after his escape to Beijing, police tied his wife to a chair for two days and threatened to beat her to death. Those same men have now moved into the family’s home, Chen said.
Chen’s concern about his wife’s safety may help explain his initial willingness to leave the embassy. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday that U.S. officials “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.”
On Thursday, U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke told a news conference that Chen exited the embassy of his own free will after having two conversations with his wife by telephone. The embassy, Locke said, had been prepared to house Chen for years.
“He made it very, very clear from the very, very beginning that he wanted to stay in China, that he wanted to be part of the struggle to improve the human rights within China, and to gain greater liberty and democracy for the people of China,” Locke said.
Describing the moment that Chen made his decision to venture beyond the embassy, Locke said, “We asked him what did he want to do, did he want to leave, was he ready to leave. And we waited several minutes and then suddenly he jumped up, very excited, very eager, and said, ‘Let’s go,’ in front of many, many witnesses.”