The Obama administration's diplomatic predicament deepened Thursday when a blind Chinese legal activist who took refuge in the American Embassy told the US he now wants to go abroad, rejecting a deal that was supposed to keep him safely in China.
Only hours after Chen Guangcheng left the embassy for a hospital checkup and reunion with his family, he began telling friends and foreign media they feel threatened and want to go abroad. At first taken aback at the reversal, the State Department said officials spoke twice by phone with Chen and met with his wife, with both affirming their desire to leave.
"They as a family have had a change of heart about whether they want to stay in China," department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
Nuland stopped short of saying whether Washington would try to reopen negotiations to get Chen abroad should Beijing agree. "We need to consult with them further to get a better sense of what they want to do and consider their options," Nuland said.
Chen's still unresolved fate threatens to erode already shaky trust between Washington and Beijing at a time both governments are trying to contain their ever sharper jostling for influence around the world. His case hovered over today's opening of two-day talks on global political and economic hotspots led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts.
A self-taught lawyer, the 40-year-old Chen spent most of the last seven years in prison or under house arrest in what was seen as retribution by local authorities for his advocacy against forced abortions and other official misdeeds. His wife, daughter and mother were confined at home with him, enduring beatings, searches and other mistreatment.
Chen remained in the hospital, its grounds ringed by a noticeable police presence, making it unclear how his exit could be arranged, and receiving medical tests.
His escape from house arrest to the fortress-like US Embassy last week inserted Washington in the center of a human rights case, always a testy issue for Beijing, and at the same potentially embarrassed Chinese leaders that it is unable to protect its own citizens.
Chen's goal, he told US officials, was to secure the safety of his family and remain in China. Under painstaking arrangements negotiated over days, Chen was to be reunited with his family and relocated outside his home province to a university town where he could formally study law.
But later, in the hospital, Chen felt abandoned by the US, finding no embassy staff had stayed behind to assure his protection. His wife, who along with his daughter and a son who has been raised by relatives in recent years were staying with him, began describing the beatings she received once his escape became known. Chen said he changed his mind, fearing for their safety if they remained in China.
US Ambassador Gary Locke defended the arrangements at a news conference today and said "unequivocally" that Chen was never pressured to leave. Locke said Chen left the embassy after talking twice on the telephone with his wife, who was waiting at the hospital.
"It may not be everything that they would like or want, but this is a good proposal and we should take the first step," Locke said.
It's unclear whether China would be willing to negotiate further over Chen's fate. The government already has expressed anger that the US harbored a Chinese activist. Beijing sees as its right the authority to restrict the movements of Chinese citizens, and the Foreign Ministry reiterated its displeasure Thursday, calling the affair meddling in Chinese domestic matters.
The diplomatic dispute over Chen is sensitive for the Obama administration, which risks appearing soft on human rights during an election year or looking as though it rushed to resolve Chen's case ahead of the strategic talks Clinton opened.
Clinton said in a speech that China must protect human rights, rejecting Beijing's criticism of the US for getting involved in Chen's case.
China's President Hu Jintao told the gathering that China and the United States "must know how to respect each other" even if they disagree.
"Given our different national conditions, it is impossible for both China and the United States to see eye to eye on every issue," he said in the only part of the opening ceremony that was broadcast on state television. "We should properly manage the differences by improving mutual understanding so these differences will not undermine the larger interests of China-US relations."
Should Beijing agree to negotiate, among the issues that would have to be worked out if Chen leaves China is whether he would go as a visiting scholar — an indication his stay would be temporary — and whether China would let him return. The government has at times revoked the passports of dissidents abroad, rendering them stateless.
A delay in figuring out how to help Chen may also undercut the US bargaining power. Pressure for a resolution would subside once Clinton leaves China on Saturday.