While blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng reportedly begs to depart Beijing on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's plane, U.S. officials today described his dramatic journey to the U.S. Embassy last week as a "mission impossible" operation.
U.S. officials say a rendezvous point was agreed upon several miles from the embassy. Chen was driven by a supporter in one car to meet a second, driven by the Americans. But en route to the location, the Americans realized they were possibly being followed.
In a rush, the two cars met in an alley. Chen was hastily pushed out of his vehicle and pulled in by the Americans before speeding back to the embassy.
But the satisfaction of his arrival soon gave way to anxious negotiations over his future. As Chen continues to ask to leave China, U.S. officials are defending the agreement they reached with Chen and the Chinese government.
U.S. officials believed they had reached an unprecedented diplomatic resolution after they escorted Chen to a Beijing hospital where he was reunited with his family. The United States, China and Chen had agreed he would be allowed to remain in China with his family to pursue a course of study at a Chinese university in Tianjin, about 70 miles southeast of Beijing.
U.S. officials say they were guaranteed the ability to monitor Chen's security and given assurances his supporters would not be prosecuted for helping him. Chen was to receive medical treatment for chronic ill health and injuries sustained during his escape.
But within a matter of hours, Chen, 40, claimed he had a change of heart. "I wanted to stay in China in the beginning," he told ABC News. "But now I have changed my mind."
Along with his family, he now wants "to leave for the U.S. on Hilary Clinton's plane."
Speaking to The Associated Press, Chen said the only reason he left the U.S. Embassy is because he was told the Chinese would kill his wife if he refused. In subsequent comments to multiple media outlets, including ABC News, he stepped back from that comment. He said the Chinese government "threatened me that if I don't leave the embassy, they will bring my family back to Shandong."
U.S. officials in Washington and Beijing confirmed that the Chinese conveyed the message that they would not allow his family to remain in Beijing if Chen did not leave. He was informed of this and soon after agreed to the deal and said he was ready to go. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said that at no time did a U.S. official speak to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children.
"He was never pressured to leave," U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke said today in Beijing, adding that Chen was asked at one point whether he wanted asylum and he declined.
"He was excited and eager when he made his decision to announce it," Locke said.
But a picture has emerged of a vulnerable man who might have inadvertently compromised a deal several U.S. officials say was the best they could do, given the desire Chen expressed to stay in China.
Several sources within both the dissident network of Chen's supporters and on the U.S. side say that Chen remained focused on remaining in his home country with his family where he believed he could continue to fight for his cause.
Chen became best known for his 2005 campaign again the forced abortion and sterilization of rural women in China as part of the country's One Child Policy. He served four years in prison for disturbing public order and was then placed under what he has called a brutal house arrest including constant surveillance, isolation and abuse.
In the final hours of negotiation last week, Chen had asked that his family be brought to Beijing as an act of good faith by the Chinese government.
"The Chinese government didn't want to go through the trouble unless they thought he might agree to the plan," Ambassador Locke said.
The Chinese put his wife, Yuan Wiejing, and two small children on a high speed train to Beijing. When she arrived the two were able to speak for the first time since his escape. And as the clock ticked down, it was Yuan who urged him to leave.
"[His] wife was pleading for Chen to come to the hospital," Locke said. "She said, 'We need to keep the struggle going. We have to take it a step at a time. It might not be everything we want but it is a step.'"
Chen agreed, and photos released soon afterwards show a smiling team of U.S. officials surrounding an exuberant Chen. But the celebration would not last long.
Whether the United States can or is willing to seek further negotiations is unclear, but unlikely given China's public statements on the matter thus far. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman has demanded that the United States apologize for the incident for the good of relations.
Clinton today addressed a conference in Beijing where she emphasized the importance of a partnership between the U.S. and China on global issues, but did not mention Chen by name.
Chen remains at the hospital in Beijing with his family. Online reports by his friend, Teng Biao, released by the State Department say he has been in touch with U.S. officials.
Speaking to ABC News this morning, Chen said, "If I can leave China, I will."
Whether that is even a possibility at this point remains unclear.