Chen does backflip on decision to stay
Official photo … Chen Guangcheng is reunited with his family in a photograph taken at a Beijing hospital on Wednesday and released by the US embassy. Photo: AP
BEIJING: The blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng appealed for help to leave China just hours after leaving US protection in disputed circumstances, as an apparent diplomatic triumph threatened to unravel into a damaging episode for relations between the two powers.
American officials had hailed the deal as a breakthrough that would fulfil Mr Chen's wish to stay in China and pursue a formal law degree with assurances that he would be treated as a normal citizen.
But Mr Chen began to have misgivings almost immediately after leaving the embassy on Wednesday. Despite promises by US officials to keep him and his family safe, Mr Chen was spooked by an account from his wife, Yuan Weijing, who told him Chinese officials had threatened to beat her to death if he remained in the hands of the US.
He said their home in Shandong had been taken over by dozens of men wielding sticks who would eat and drink in their living room. ''My safety and my family's safety are not guaranteed even now,'' he told The New York Times. ''Their promises have not been fulfilled.''
China has reacted angrily to the affair and broke its silence on Wednesday, issuing a statement via its foreign ministry denouncing the United States' decision to allow Mr Chen into its embassy via ''abnormal means'' and for ''unacceptably interfering'' with its domestic affairs.
Speaking to reporters via telephone from his hospital bed in Beijing, where he is being treated for a broken foot suffered in his daring late-night escape from home detention on April 22, Mr Chen said he felt pressured by US officials to leave the embassy.
Having previously maintained that he wanted to remain in China to retain his influence as an activist, he said he changed his mind after emerging from the embassy on Wednesday and speaking with friends and family. ''I did not make the final decision at the US embassy, I made it yesterday. I don't think the US is protecting me,'' he said.
Heralded by US officials on Wednesday as an example of the two countries' ability to reach a deal, embassy officials had released photographs depicting a smiling Mr Chen at a celebratory send-off from the embassy and arriving at the hospital to reunite with family.
Yesterday, they had to scramble to deny suggestions that Mr Chen, who has been in detention for nearly seven years, had been misled or pressured into leaving US protection. An unnamed US official said ''[Mr Chen's] view of what [is] the best thing for him and his family may be changing'' and that officials were still speaking to Chinese counterparts about the case.
The US ambassador, Gary Locke, told a news conference that he could say ''unequivocally'' that Mr Chen was never pressured to leave. ''We asked him if he was ready to leave. He jumped up very excited and said 'let's go' in front of many, many witnesses,'' Mr Locke said.
Teng Biao, a well known rights lawyer and a close friend of Mr Chen, said renewed discussions with the US embassy have been going smoothly and that Mr Chen's family had explained why they had changed their minds and wanted to leave China.
Mr Teng was one of the first to contact Mr Chen after he left the embassy and pleaded with him to reconsider his decision to stay.
''You need to understand that if you stay behind, there'll be nothing you can do,'' Mr Teng said he had told Mr Chen. ''Even if you don't work on any sensitive [legal] case, life will be bad enough if you're trying to do your own thing.''
The drama surrounding Mr Chen largely overshadowed the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the two countries, which began yesterday. In opening remarks, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, pressed China on human rights, but did not mention Mr Chen.
''We believe all governments have to answer our citizens' aspirations for dignity and the rule of law and that no nation can or should deny those rights,'' she said. She urged China to co-operate on issues, including helping to defuse the nuclear activities of Iran and North Korea and pressuring the Syrian government to halt its violence.