For a blind man who managed to escape a security cordon around his home-turned-prison, it is perhaps no surprise that Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng‘s next feat was to address a U.S. congressional hearing. Speaking from a Beijing hospital, where he has been isolated from friends, supporters, media and the U.S. diplomats who had temporarily sheltered him, Chen repeated his desire to leave China with his family. He said he was not only worried about his safety but the safety of his family, including his mother and brothers who face reprisals for his April 22 escape from his village in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong. “I haven’t be able to reach them all yet,” he said by phone, adding that security officers have installed video cameras and an electrified fence around the family home where his mother is still staying. “I’m very worried about my mother and my brothers,” he said. “So I hope the Americans can contribute to secure my family’s security as well. That’s what I am worried about right now.”
Chen also said that he hoped to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in Beijing Wednesday for two days of pre-scheduled annual talks with Chinese leaders. Clinton spoke with Chen by phone on Wednesday as he left U.S. protection. At that point Chen hoped to remain in China, and plans were made to allow him to attend law school in China with his wife, Yuan Weijing. But hours later Chen’s position shifted. “My real thoughts are that I want my family to leave China as soon as possible,” he told TIME by phone. “This was not what I originally hoped for, but I changed my mind last night. I changed my mind as a result of the current circumstances.”
The twists in the case have opened American officials to criticism that they were eager to get resolve Chen’s case ahead of the May 3-4 U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and may have pressured him to leave the embassy and underestimated the risk he faced outside. Mitt Romney, President Obama’s likely Republican challenger in this fall’s election, waded into the debate to criticize the administration. “If these reports are true, this is dark day for freedom, and it’s a day of shame for the Obama administration,” Romney said. “We are a place of freedom, here and around the world, and we should stand up and defend freedom wherever it is under attack.”
U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke has denied that Chen was under any pressure to leave the embassy, and U.S. officials have said that he never requested asylum. His changed at Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital after speaking by phone with supporters including Beijing-based dissident Zeng Jinyan and lawyer Teng Biao. Teng, who released a transcript of his calls with Chen (translated here by the Shanghaiist blog), warned the activist that he was at risk. “If you stay on in China, it’s going to be very dangerous for you,” Teng said. Over the course of two hours, Chen’s tone becomes more and more worried. Those discussions helped Chen change his mind. “Yes, the phone calls from Teng Biao and Zeng Jinyan did influence me a little but my decisions are made by myself,” he told TIME.
With Chen no longer under U.S. protection, leverage in his case has clearly shifted to the Chinese side. U.S. diplomats have been bared from meeting him in the hospital, where’s he’s being treated for a an injury he sustained in escaping his farmhouse. U.S. diplomats were able to speak with him by phone twice Thursday and meet with his wife. But by Friday the U.S. was no longer able to reach Chen for more than a few seconds, the Associated Press reported. Reporters outside the Chaoyang Hospital said they saw U.S. Embassy staff entering carrying a cell phone box, a sign that they were possibly trying to reestablish communications with him.
A remaining source of U.S. leverage is the presence of Clinton. With the Sino-U.S. talks ending Friday, and she scheduled to leave on Saturday, the U.S. side is scrambling to find a suitable resolution to the standoff. In his comments to Congress, Chen was careful not to ask for asylum, stating instead that he wanted to visit the U.S. “In the agreement between the U.S. and China, China said that it will guarantee my human rights as given by the constitution, which includes the freedom of getting a visa and traveling abroad,” he said. “So now I’m asking them to obey their promises and give me the freedom to go aboard to rest. I want to go to America to rest for a while because I haven’t had a weekend in the last seven years.”
Signs of a potential compromise emerged Friday afternoon. One key development: He Peirong, the citizen activist who helped Chen escape to Beijing and was later detained by state security officers, said on Twitter that she was allowed to return home Friday. And a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said that Chen could apply to study abroad, just like any other Chinese citizen. At a press conference at the close of the talks Clinton said that Ambassador Locke had spoken with Chen and that embassy staff had been able to meet with him. “He confirms that he and his family now want to go to the United States so he can pursue his studies,” Clinton said. “In that regard we are also encouraged by the official statement issued today by the Chinese government confirming that he can apply to travel abroad for this purpose. Over the course of the day progress has been made to help him have the future that he wants. We will be staying in touch with him as this process moves forward.”
For Chen’s supporters, the Chinese foreign ministry’s announcement was a welcome sign. But also one tinged with uncertainty. The foreign ministry is only part of China’s central government. It was unclear whether its statement represented the thoughts of hardline elements in China’s security services, which have been badly embarrassed by Chen’s escape from detention and unlikely to be happy about his potential departure. After the collapse of the initial agreement on Chen, it’s possible to see the foreign ministry’s statement through a more pessimistic light. Just like other Chinese citizens he can apply to study abroad, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be approved.
—with reporting by Chengcheng Jiang and Jessie Jiang/Beijing
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