US President Barack Obama administration’s diplomatic predicament deepened yesterday, when a blind Chinese legal activist who took refuge in the US embassy said he now wants to go abroad, rejecting a deal that was supposed to keep him safely in China.
Only hours after Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) left the embassy for a hospital checkup and reunion with his family, he began telling friends and foreign media they feel threatened and want to go abroad. At first taken aback at the reversal, the US State Department said officials spoke twice by phone with Chen and met with his wife, with both affirming their desire to leave.
“They as a family have had a change of heart about whether they want to stay in China,” department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
Nuland stopped short of saying whether Washington would try to reopen negotiations to get Chen abroad should Beijing agree.
“We need to consult with them further to get a better sense of what they want to do and consider their options,” Nuland said.
Chen’s still unresolved fate threatens to erode already shaky trust between Washington and Beijing at a time both governments are trying to contain their ever sharper jostling for influence around the world.
A self-taught lawyer, the 40-year-old Chen spent most of the last seven years in prison or under house arrest in what was seen as retribution by local authorities for his advocacy against forced abortions and other official misdeeds. His wife, daughter and mother were confined at home with him, enduring beatings, searches and other mistreatment.
Chen remained in the hospital, its grounds ringed by a noticeable police presence, making it unclear how his exit could be arranged, and receiving medical tests.
Chen’s goal, he told US officials, was to secure the safety of his family and remain in China. Under painstaking arrangements negotiated over days, Chen was to be reunited with his family and relocated outside his home province to a university town where he could formally study law.
But later, in the hospital, Chen felt abandoned by the US, finding no embassy staff had stayed behind to assure his protection. His wife, who along with his daughter and a son who has been raised by relatives in recent years were staying with him, began describing the beatings she received once his escape became known. Chen said he changed his mind, fearing for their safety if they remained in China.
US Ambassador Gary Locke defended the arrangements at a news conference yesterday and said “unequivocally” that Chen was never pressured to leave. Locke said Chen left the embassy after talking twice on the telephone with his wife, who was waiting at the hospital.
In Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) yesterday called on the Chinese government to ensure the safety of Chen and his family.
“The DPP has always believed the government should not infringe on the universal values of democracy, freedom and basic human rights. We call for and expect positive answers from Beijing to Chinese people’s longing for democracy, freedom and human rights protection,” DPP spokesperson Lin Chun-hsien (林俊憲) said.
Additional reporting by Chris Wang