Chen’s ‘Change of Heart’ Puts U.S. Officials on Defensive

Legal Activist Chen Seeks to Leave China
Chen Guangcheng, right, speaks on a mobile phone in a vehicle with Gary Locke, U.S. Ambassador to China, in Beijing on May 2, 2012. Source: U.S. Embassy Beijing Press Office via Bloomberg

U.S. diplomats defended their handling of a deal that led legal activist Chen Guangcheng to give up the safety of the American embassy, saying he later had a “change of heart” about his decision to stay in China.

Chen, a legal activist who is blind, was imprisoned for more than four years after representing villagers who opposed forced sterilizations. He consistently told U.S. diplomats during a week-long stay in the embassy in Beijing that he wanted to remain in China with his family, U.S. officials said.

“It is clear now that now in the last 12 to 15 hours they as a family have had a change of heart about whether they want to stay in China,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

In a phone call from his hospital bed, Chen said he wants to leave China as soon as possible, journalist Melinda Liu wrote on the Daily Beast website today.

“My fervent hope is that it would be possible for me and my family to leave for the U.S. on Hillary Clinton’s plane,” he said. Secretary of State Clinton is in Beijing for cabinet-level talks that began today.

That is unlikely because Chen and his family don’t hold passports. To leave the country, they would need to get exit permission as well as passports from Chinese authorities, and also a visa from the U.S., where he could apply for asylum. Under normal passport-application rules, they would have to return to their home in Shandong province, which he fled after house arrest and alleged beatings by local authorities.

‘Never Pressured’

Yesterday, Chen agreed to a deal the U.S. helped broker with Chinese authorities that would have allowed him to relocate within China and study law on a scholarship, U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Gary Locke told reporters traveling with Clinton.

“I can tell you unequivocally that he was never pressured to leave” the U.S. embassy in Beijing, Locke said. “We waited for him to make his decision.”

U.S. officials had two telephone conversations with Chen today and also met with his wife outside the hospital, Locke said in an interview with ABC News. There will be further discussions with them to “explore the options,” including whether they now desire asylum in the U.S., Locke said.

Chen’s change of heart has upended the agreement, overshadowing annual U.S.-China that are being attended by Clinton and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Political Fallout

Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, questioned whether the Chinese government assurances of Chen’s safety can be trusted. Further, Chen’s earlier statements that he felt pressured to leave the U.S. embassy may expose President Barack Obama to attacks from Republicans for failing to protect a prominent rights activist.

“This is a big win for the Chinese authorities because the attention ought to be focused on the wrongdoing which was apparently done by either national or local officials to Chen,” said Bates Gill, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “These developments will become a U.S. domestic political distraction to criticize Obama and his approach to China.”

U.S. Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who is chairman of the Congressional-Executive Committee on China, called a hearing today on Chen’s situation. “The Obama administration must do everything it can to ensure that Chen Guangcheng, his family members and all those who have helped him are removed from harm’s way and do not suffer any further abuse or retaliation,” Smith said on his website.

Death Threat

Chen told CNN that after his escape his wife had been tied to a chair in the family home for two days by police who threatened to beat her to death. In an interview with the Associated Press, he said that, while he’d been told he would be safe in China, he began to fear for his family and felt the U.S. had pressured him to leave the embassy.

In remarks Clinton delivered at the opening of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks today, she shortened a section of her prepared text that touched on human rights, saying the U.S. “raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” because it believes all governments must heed their citizens’ “aspirations for dignity and the rule of law.”

Chinese President Hu Jintao said his country and the U.S. should “prove that the traditional belief that big powers are bound to enter into confrontation and conflicts is wrong” and that they should be committed to a “cooperative partnership.”

After Chen left the embassy, U.S. officials described a deal with Chinese authorities permitting him and his family to relocate in China so he could study law in safety at one of seven universities, with his family’s living expenses paid for, and said the U.S. would monitor China’s compliance.

‘Very Disappointed’

“The embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised to be with me at the hospital,” Chen told CNN, according to a transcript. “But this afternoon soon after we got here, they were all gone. I’m very disappointed at the U.S. government.”

Locke said Chen’s wife had urged him to come to the hospital to be reunited with his family. He said Chen also wanted Chinese authorities to make a gesture of good faith by bringing his family to Beijing.

“We asked him what did he want to do, did he want to leave, was he ready to leave,” Locke said. “We waited several minutes and suddenly he jumped up very eager, very ready and said, ‘Let’s go,’ in front of many, many witnesses.”

China’s foreign ministry demanded the U.S. apologize for allowing Chen into the embassy, according to a statement yesterday in which it also said China is “strongly dissatisfied” with the U.S. handling of the case.

Leadership Transition

Chen’s flight to the U.S. Embassy comes ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership change in China. Also, the Communist Party is investigating Bo Xilai, the Chongqing party secretary whose wife Gu Kailai is suspected of involvement in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. The allegations about Heywood were exposed by Bo’s former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, who spent a night at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in February and was later taken into custody by Chinese authorities.

Chen, who was blinded by a fever in infancy and was illiterate until his 20s, was jailed for more than four years after filing a lawsuit protesting the forced sterilizations. After his release in September 2010, he and his wife were confined to their home. In a video recorded after his escape, Chen said reports that he and his family were beaten during his house arrest were true.

Chen’s case, which initially seemed like a foreign policy success for the Obama administration, might now be used against the president, who is campaigning for re-election in November, said Kerry Brown, a former U.K. diplomat in China and head of the Asia program at London-based Chatham House.

“It just looks very confusing -- it looks like they took one position and then another,” Brown said in a phone interview. “It plays into Romney’s hands,” he said, referring to presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

— With assistance by Indira Lakshmanan, and Michael Forsythe

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