Chen says he wants to go to U.S.
Beijing (CNN) — The Chinese activist who left the refuge of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said Thursday that he regrets the move and now wants U.S. officials to help get him and his family to the United States.
“I want them to protect human rights through concrete actions,” Chen Guangcheng told CNN from his hospital room in Beijing. “We are in danger. If you can talk to Hillary, I hope she can help my whole family leave China.”
Chen was referring to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived Wednesday for economic talks and found herself in the middle of a diplomatic firestorm.
His comments left the U.S. government battling to defend the deal it brokered with the Chinese authorities over Chen’s future, with human rights advocacy groups questioning whether China would uphold its side of the bargain.
U.S. officials in Beijing said Thursday they would continue to help Chen where possible, but stressed that the decision to leave the embassy was his own.
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“I can tell you unequivocally that he was never pressured to leave,” the U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke, said at a briefing with reporters. “He was excited and eager about leaving.”
The United States will do what it can to help Chen and his family leave China if that is what they want to do, a senior U.S. State Department official said, but added that Washington doesn’t have “a magic wand” to get him out of the country.
“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. So we are spending today endeavoring to clarify whether his position has changed and what he now wants.,” the official said.
“So we will continue to do that throughout the day today, and 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. But I’m not going to prejudge here what his final view is going to be, or what we will be able to do to support him, given the fact that he very clearly made one choice yesterday, and may have had a change of view today.”
Last month, the 40-year-old blind, self-taught lawyer escaped house arrest in the eastern China province of Shandong and fled to Beijing, where he took refuge in the embassy for six days but left Wednesday for a hospital.
The situation has tested the Obama administration’s approach to relations with China, straining its commitment to uphold human rights even as it strives to maintain steady ties with Beijing.
When Chen left the embassy Wednesday, U.S. officials said the Chinese government had committed to relocate him to a “safe environment” away from the province where he and his family say they suffered brutal treatment at the hands of the local authorities.
China has agreed to investigate those allegations of mistreatment, the officials said, noting that Chen will not face any further legal issues.
“The United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr. Chen and his family in the days, weeks and years ahead,” Clinton said in a statement Wednesday.
But human rights advocacy groups raised doubts about whether Beijing would stick to the promises it had reportedly made.
“There are serious concerns over whether the Chinese government will honor commitments it made to the U.S. government to not persecute Chen and his family members,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
Chinese officials did not comment directly on what deal had been reached with the United States over Chen. In comments reported by state media, they focused on what they described as “interference” by Washington in China’s internal affairs.
“This is totally unacceptable to China,” Liu Weimin, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said in comments reported Wednesday by the state-run news agency Xinhua. He demanded an apology from the United States.
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Nevertheless, senior officials from the two countries — including Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner — gathered in Beijing on Thursday for scheduled talks about strategic and economic issues.
In a speech at the meeting, Clinton referred to human rights without mentioning Chen. “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.
On the Chinese side, President Hu Jintao said Washington and Beijing “should approach our differences in a correct way, and respect and accommodate each other’s interests and concerns.”
To reach the U.S. embassy last month, Chen climbed over a series of walls to evade the guards who had kept him under house arrest for more than 18 months in Shandong. He injured his foot in the process, one of the reasons he needed medical attention.
He had been confined to his home after serving four years in prison, apparently over his legal advocacy for what he called victims of abusive practices such as forced abortions and sterilizations by China’s family planning officials.
Chen said Thursday that he did not fully grasp what he was facing when he agreed to abandon the embassy a day earlier.
“At the time, I didn’t have a lot of information,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed to call my friends from inside the embassy. I couldn’t keep up with news, so I didn’t know a lot of things that were happening.”
He said Thursday that he felt that his life and that of his wife, Yuan Weijing, would be in danger if he were to remain in the country.
“Anything could happen,” he said.
Chen said he left the embassy only after U.S. officials encouraged him to do so.
“The embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised to have people stay with me at the hospital,” he said. “But this afternoon, as soon as I checked into the hospital room, I noticed they were all gone.”
He said he was “very disappointed” in the U.S. government and felt “a little” that he had been lied to by the embassy.
He said that when he was reunited with his family at the hospital, he learned that Yuan had been badly treated after his escape.
“She was tied to a chair by police for two days,” he said. “Then they carried thick sticks to our house, threatening to beat her to death. Now they have moved into the house. They eat at our table and use our stuff.”
Chen said he was told that had he not left the embassy, “they would send her back (to the family’s village in Shandong), and people there would beat her.”
He said he also learned that Chinese officials had rounded up some of his supporters after his escape and placed some of them under house detention.
Locke, the U.S. ambassador, said that Chen had spoken with Yuan twice before he left the embassy and that she had encouraged him to come to the hospital and be reunited with the family.
Yuan said she does not want to raise her children in China, where she said they would have no future. She said guards at the hospital would not allow her to leave and appealed to Clinton to intervene.
“If we stay here or get sent back to Shandong, our lives would be at stake,” she said. “Under such circumstances, I hope the U.S. government will protect us and help us leave China based on its values of protecting human rights.”
Locke said that while inside the embassy, Chen had made it clear from the beginning that he wanted to stay in China.
“We asked him if he wanted to go to the United States,” Locke said. “He said, ‘no.’”
CNN’s Eunice Yoon, Jethro Mullen and Stan Grant contributed to this report.