Activist fears for family as US deal with China starts to unravel

Dissident Chen Guangcheng says embassy broke promise to stay with him in hospital

Chen Guangcheng, the blind civil rights activist, left his refuge in the US embassy in Beijing yesterday following apparent assurances that he and his family could live a normal life – but hours later Mr Chen repudiated this claim, saying he wanted to leave China and that his wife's life was in danger.

The US had refused even to confirm that Mr Chen had taken refuge in its embassy, after he escaped house arrest on 22 April. After days of frantic negotiations, a deal was finally agreed just hours after Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, arrived in Beijing for two days of bilateral talks.

But the deal appeared to be unravelling last night amid reports that Mr Chen had been told by an official at the embassy that Chinese authorities had threatened to beat his wife to death if he refused to leave the fortified American compound. In an interview with the Associated Press last night, Mr Chen said he left following an agreement under which he would receive medical care, be reunited with his family and be allowed to attend university.

Speaking from a hospital in Beijing, he said he now feared for his safety and wanted to leave the China. Embassy officials denied knowledge of the threat.

It appears that Mr Chen learned of the threats to his family only after he had agreed to leave the embassy. He also said last night that, despite assurances that US officials would stay with him in hospital, embassy staff have now left. "Nobody from the embassy is here. I don't understand why. They promised to be here," he told Channel 4 news.

The Washington Post reported that its correspondent in Beijing, Keith Richburg, had received a call from Mr Chen en route to the Chaoyang hospital earlier in the day, when he was travelling with the American ambassador, Gary Locke: "What I was not prepared for was when Locke said, 'I'm here with Chen Guangcheng. Do you speak Chinese? Hold on.' And then passed the phone over. 'Hello, this is Chen Guangcheng,' came a matter-of-fact, almost cheerful voice," Mr Richburg said.

Mr Chen's family had been brought to Beijing by the state security staff, who had beaten and harassed the family since his release from jail, and the beginning of his house arrest, in 2010.

US officials will be under intense pressure to explain what sort of deal it struck with the Chinese in the hours before Ms Clinton arrival in the Chinese capital. The Secretary of State is understood to have telephoned Mr Chen as he drove to hospital with Mr Locke.

In a statement issued last night, the State Department in Washington, said: "At no time did any US officials speak to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children."

US officials said they had taken Mr Chen in to the mission initially to make sure he had medical attention for injuries picked up during his escape.

However, they insisted that Mr Chen had made it clear he was not seeking asylum and that he intended to remain at the embassy for only a limited time.

US diplomats "will take a continuing interest in the case of Mr Chen and his family," and will check on him at "regular intervals" to confirm the Chinese government's commitments were being met, sources said yesterday.

A self-taught lawyer blinded by fever as a child, 40 year-old Mr Chen is best known for exposing forced abortion and sterilisation practices in Linyi County in eastern Shandong province, and for seeking legal redress for the victims.

The drama of his escape last week, and the timing of the diplomatic furore with Ms Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, in China for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, meant resolving this issue was never going to be easy. Matters were complicated further when Mr Chen initially indicated he intended to stay in China – most dissidents who leave find they lose their impact when working from overseas.

However, assurances were needed because local officials in Shandong province have been rounding up the activists who helped Mr Chen escape.

With major trade issues to be resolved, and with Washington seeking Chinese support in dealing with Iran, Syria and North Korea, there has been little appetite on either side for the talks to be overshadowed by Mr Chen's case.

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