Beijing: A blind Chinese activist who sparked a diplomatic tussle by holing up in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for six days came out Wednesday after what U.S. officials said were assurances from China of his safety.
Chen Guangcheng`s escape from illegal house arrest and other mistreatment in his rural town and his flight into the protection of U.S. diplomats in Beijing had threatened to derail annual U.S.-China strategic talks involving U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton starting Thursday.
U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke escorted Chen to the Chaoyang Hospital, where he was to receive medical treatment. On the way, the activist called his lawyer, Li Jinsong, who said Chen told him: "`I`m free. I`ve received clear assurances.`"
Chen, 40, also received a call from Clinton, whom he thanked in Chinese for raising his case, a U.S. official said. Chen then told Clinton in halting English, "`I want to kiss you,`" the official said.
Chen, who ran afoul of local government officials for exposing forced abortions, escaped from 20 months of home detention last week, fleeing into U.S. hands and setting up the most delicate diplomatic crisis in years for the two governments.
As part of the agreement that ended the fraught, behind-the-scenes standoff, U.S. officials said China agreed to let Chen receive a medical checkup and be reunited with his family at the hospital. He would then be relocated to a safe place in China where he could study at university — all demands activists said Chen had raised.
In a fit of face-saving pique, the Chinese Foreign Ministry demanded that the U.S. apologize, investigate how Chen got into the embassy and hold those responsible accountable.
"What the U.S. side has done has interfered in the domestic affairs of China, and the Chinese side will never accept it," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told China`s official Xinhua news agency.
The apparent resolution shelves, at least for now, a predicament that threatened to move human rights to the front of a U.S.-China agenda crowded with disagreements over trade imbalances, North Korea and Syria.
With Chen out of the way, Clinton, Treasury Secretary Geithner and their Chinese counterparts can focus on the original purpose of their two-day talks starting Thursday: building trust between the world`s superpower and its up-and-coming rival.
However, leaving Chen is risky for President Barack Obama because Washington will now be seen as party to an agreement on Chen`s safety that it does not have the power to enforce.
U.S. officials, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. gave unspecified assistance getting Chen into the embassy because he injured his leg escaping from his village. In the embassy, Chen did not request safe passage out of China or asylum in the U.S., said one of the officials.
Asked if the U.S. would apologize as Beijing demanded, the official said, "This was an extraordinary case involving exceptional circumstance, we do not anticipate that it will be repeated."
Chen served four years in prison and was then kept under house arrest with his wife, daughter and mother, with the adults often being roughed by officials and his daughter searched and harassed. His dogged pursuit of justice and the mistreatment of him by authorities brought him attention from the U.S. and foreign governments and earned him supporters among many ordinary Chinese.
Negotiations over Chen`s fate also had likely considered options such as him going to the U.S.
In a video statement he recorded while in hiding last week, Chen demanded that the Chinese government guarantee his family`s safety. He told fellow activists that his preferred option was to stay in China and continue his legal advocacy as long as his family is safe.
Bob Fu of the Texas-based ChinaAid said earlier Wednesday that Chen was conflicted.
Chen "wants to participate for the progress in China in this moment of history, and he is afraid of course he will lose touch and could not return if he chooses to come to the U.S.," said Fu, who was in touch with the activists who spirited Chen to Beijing.
Aside from his wife, daughter and mother, other family members remain at risk. Chen`s elder brother, Guangfu, was detained Thursday after officials discovered the activist missing. A nephew, Kegui, was wanted for injuring local officials when he fought back during a raid, though his whereabouts Wednesday were not known, said Liu Weiguo, a lawyer who volunteered to defend him.
Though Chen`s mistreatment has largely been seen as the work of vengeful local officials, he slipped away from one house arrest in 2005 only to grabbed in Beijing and sent back.
Mishandling the situation would leave Obama open to attacks from his presumed Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, in what is shaping up to be a tough re-election campaign.
Romney and several Republican lawmakers already have demanded that Obama not back down to Beijing. Handing over Chen without adequate safeguards would also draw intense criticism from the human rights community in the United States, one of Obama`s core constituencies.
"The U.S. government has a moral obligation to ensure that Chen Guangcheng, his family and any who aided his Houdini-like escape from house arrest are either granted asylum in the United States or are not mistreated if any of them choose to stay in China," said Frank Jannuzi, head of Amnesty International`s Washington office.