A cloud is hanging over annual talks between the United States and China as a blind Chinese dissident who took refuge in the US Embassy appeals to Washington for more help.
Beijing had already demanded an apology from the US before Chen Guangcheng baulked at a deal in which he would remain in China. Now that he wants to leave, the case could overshadow high-level talks with visiting US officials.
Blind activist afraid and anxious to leave China
Blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng says in a phone interview he wants to leave China because of safety fears.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are in China to discuss foreign policy and economic issues with their Chinese counterparts.
After six days holed up in the US Embassy, as senior officials in Beijing and Washington tussled over his fate, Chen left the compound's protective confines on Wednesday for a nearby hospital for treatment of a leg injury suffered in his escape.
A shaken Chen told The Associated Press from his hospital room that Chinese authorities had warned he would lose his opportunity to be reunited with his family if he stayed longer in the embassy.
US officials verified that account. But they adamantly denied his contention that one American diplomat had warned him of a threat from the Chinese that his wife would be beaten to death if he did not get out of the embassy.
"I think we'd like to rest in a place outside of China," Chen told the AP, appealing again for help from Washington. "Help my family and me leave safely."
Only hours earlier, US officials said they had extracted from the Chinese government a promise that Chen would join his family and be allowed to start a new life in a university town in China, safe from the rural authorities who had abusively held him in prison and house arrest for nearly seven years.
Clinton spoke to Chen on the phone when he left the embassy and, in a statement, welcomed the resettlement agreement as one that "reflected his choices and our values".
But the murky circumstances of Chen's departure from the embassy, and his sudden appeal to leave China after declaring he wanted to stay, again threatened to overshadow talks that were to focus on the global economic crisis and hotspots such as North Korea, Iran, Syria and Sudan.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry signalled its unhappiness with the entire affair, demanding that the US apologise for giving Chen sanctuary at the embassy.
"What the US side should do now is neither to continue misleading the public and making every excuse to shift responsibility and conceal its wrongdoing, nor to interfere in the domestic affairs of China," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin in a statement that was a response to comments from Clinton praising the deal on Chen.
Chen, 40, became an international human rights figure and inspiration to many ordinary Chinese after exposing forced abortions carried out as part of China's one-child policy. He served four years in prison on what supporters said were fabricated charges, then was kept under house arrest with his wife, daughter and mother, with the adults often being roughed up by officials and his daughter searched and harassed.
Blinded by childhood fever but intimately familiar with the terrain of his village, Chen slipped from his guarded farmhouse in eastern China's Shandong province at night on April 22. He made his way through fields and forest, along roads and across a narrow river to meet the first of several supporters who helped bring him to Beijing and the embassy. It took three days for his guards to realise he was gone.