The human rights activist at the centre of a diplomatic row between Beijing and Washington has reignited tensions by saying he wants to leave China for the United States.
Speaking from Chaoyang hospital in Beijing yesterday, Chen Guangcheng said his "fervent hope" would be to leave China with his family on the same plane as the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who is attending economic talks in the Chinese capital this week.
He told reporters that he fears his family is in danger. "It is clear now that in the past 12 to 15 hours they, as a family, have had a change of heart," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters. "We need to consult with them further, get a better sense of what they want to do and together consider their options," she said.
Mr Chen, a self-taught lawyer who has been blind since childhood, was placed under house arrest in 2010 having served a prison term after angering authorities by highlighting the brutal enforcement of China's one-child policy.
Since escaping from house arrest in Shandong province and arriving at the US embassy in Beijing last week, his case has overshadowed talks in the Chinese capital attended by Ms Clinton and the US Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner. After six days of negotiations at the US embassy Mr Chen initially appeared to agree to a deal, brokered by US officials, whereby Chinese authorities would allow him to set up a new life with his wife in China.
He had maintained that he wanted to stay to encourage reform. However, Mr Chen yesterday made it clear that he had changed his mind. This change appears to have partly come about after Mr Chen spoke to the activist and lawyer Teng Biao, who advised Mr Chen that to stay in China would be "very dangerous".
Mr Chen's wife, Yuan Weijing, who said she had been tied to a chair for days and threatened by Chinese officials during his time at the US embassy, is also thought to have played a key role.
China's Foreign Ministry declined to comment on Mr Chen's request to leave, but criticised the US for its "unacceptable" handling of the issue. Beijing had previously accused Washington of interfering in China's domestic matters.
Mr Chen also said yesterday that he had felt pressured to leave the US embassy. "The embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised to have people stay with me in the hospital. But this afternoon as soon as I checked into the hospital room, I noticed they were all gone," he told CNN.
The US ambassador, Gary Locke, yesterday denied the claims: "We asked him was he ready to leave. He jumped up, very excited and said 'let's go' in front of many, many witnesses."
Neither the US or China made reference to the Chen case as officials met for the annual strategic talks, though Ms Clinton underlined the US position on human rights. "The United States believes that no state can legitimately deny the universal rights that belong to every human being – or punish those who exercise them," she said.Reuse content