Chinese whispers after US handover
Beijing, May 2: America today "facilitated" the departure of blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng from its embassy here after securing assurances from Beijing on his safety. But, by nightfall, a human rights uproar was threatening to engulf what had earlier looked like a pragmatic deal that coincided with Hillary Clinton's visit to China.
Chen, the dissident who fled house arrest last month in a dramatic escape from security forces and sought shelter in the US embassy last week, emerged today from the American facility and was taken to a nearby hospital.
US officials said they had extracted from the Chinese government a promise that Chen would reunite with his family and be allowed to start a new life in a university town.
The deal appeared to defuse a diplomatic standoff that clouded the Chinese strategic talks with Clinton starting tomorrow. Clinton is scheduled to visit Calcutta on the weekend.
Hours later, however, the future safety of Chen and his reasons for agreeing to leave American protection were subjects of an intense international debate among rights activists. The Chinese government also continued to demand an apology from the US for interfering in the case.
The tide changed after a shaken Chen told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his hospital room that US officials conveyed to him that Chinese authorities would have sent his family back to his home province if he remained inside the embassy. He added that, at one point, the US officials told him his wife would have been beaten to death.
"I think we'd like to rest in a place outside of China," Chen said, appealing again for help from US officials. "Help my family and me leave safely."
State department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a statement that no US official spoke to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children. Nor did the Chinese relay any such threats to American diplomats, she said.
Nuland did confirm that the Chinese intended to return his family to their home province of Shandong, where they had been detained illegally and beaten by local officials angry over Chen's campaigns to expose forced abortions, and that they would lose any chance of being reunited.
"At every opportunity, he expressed his desire to stay in China, reunify with his family, continue his education and work for reform in his country," Nuland said. "All our diplomacy was directed at putting him in the best possible position to achieve his objectives."
There appeared to be no similar case in which a high-profile Chinese dissident had sought protection at the American embassy and then returned to Chinese custody.
The last Chinese dissident to take refuge in an American diplomatic compound was Fang Lizhi, an astrophysicist, who walked into the embassy in Beijing with his wife in 1989, the day after the Tiananmen crackdown. Fang eventually reached the US, where he died last month.
Today's differing accounts could not be immediately reconciled. But the turn in Chen's fate comes after nearly seven years of prison, house arrest and abusive treatment of him and his family members by local officials.
Chen, 40, said he never asked to leave China or for asylum in the US and said American officials reassured him they would accompany him out of the embassy.
At the hospital, Chen was reunited with his wife, his daughter and a son he hasn't seen in at least two years. But after they got to his room in Chaoyang Hospital, he said no US officials stayed behind and that the family is now scared and wants to leave the country.
"The embassy told me that they would have someone accompany me the whole time," he said. "But today when I got to the ward, I found that there was not a single embassy official here, and so I was very unsatisfied. I felt they did not tell me the truth on this issue."
American officials had earlier said the agreement involved significant concessions from the Chinese and was the best that could be achieved given Chen's desire to stay in China rather than to seek asylum abroad.
Chen will be permitted to study law at a major university in the city of Tianjin, far away from his home village where he had been subject to harassment and intimidation for many years, they said.
Clinton had said in a statement that she was "pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng's stay and departure from the US embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values. I was glad to have the chance to speak with him today and to congratulate him…."
"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," she added. "Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task."
Bob Fu, the president of the US-based ChinaAid association, said he feared that the "US side has abandoned Mr Chen" and that his departure from the embassy was not necessarily voluntary.
|ASSOCIATED PRESS AND NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE|