The United States is encouraged by signs from the Chinese that a resolution on the future of blind human rights activist Chen Guancheng can still be reached, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today.
Addressing the highly charged topic for the first time since arriving Wednesday in Beijing, she said, "We are encouraged by the progress we have seen today but there is more work to do."
Clinton confirmed that Chen, who escaped house arrest April 22 and found temporary refuge at the U.S. Embassy, now says he is certain he wants to go to the United States with his family to study. She said the United States is "heartened" that the Chinese government confirmed that Chen can apply to study abroad. Chen has expressed his desire to accept an invitation he says he received from New York University.
Acknowledging Chen's situation for the first time since news of his daring escape to the embassy made international headlines, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced earlier in a statement that, "Chen Guangcheng is currently being treated in hospital. As a Chinese citizen, if he wants to study abroad he can go through the normal channels to the relevant departments and complete the formalities in accordance with the law like other Chinese citizens."
The ministry statement was the most positive sign so far from the Chinese.
There were also other indications the U.S.-brokered deal has not been irreversibly damaged. Clinton said today that U.S. Embassy staffers were able to visit Chen in the hospital. Top-level diplomats had been blocked the day before from entering hospital grounds.
"We will be staying in touch with him," she said today, "and we will continue to engage with the Chinese government at the very highest level."
Secretary Clinton's remarks capped a week of turbulent diplomatic drama. She has been directly involved in negotiations here, U.S. officials said. And observers say the diplomatic crisis has presented the toughest challenge to U.S.-Sino relations in decades.
Chen, who is a self-taught lawyer, had told Congress Thursday that he wants to meet with Clinton face-to-face and he asked to have his "freedom of travel guaranteed" while he looks to leave China with his family and come to the United States.
"I want to meet with the Secretary Clinton," Chen, 40, said over speakerphone as a translator conveyed his words in English. "I hope I can get more help from her. I also want to thank her face to face."
The blind Chinese activist, who generated international headlines ahead of Clinton's attendance at a summit in China this week, phoned into a congressional hearing Thursday to report to Congress the latest details of his predicament.
After a U.S.-brokered deal that allowed him to stay in China, Chen reportedly has begged to depart Beijing on Clinton's plane.
White House press secretary Jay Carney Thursday defended the Obama administration's diplomacy, insisting U.S. officials did not pressure Chen to stay in China when the deal was struck.
"At no point during his time in the embassy did Mr. Chen ever request political asylum in the U.S., and at every opportunity he expressed his desire to stay in China, be unified with his family, continue his education and work for reform in his country," Carney told reporters. "All of our diplomacy was directed at putting him in the best possible position to achieve his objectives."
Carney, however, repeatedly sidestepped questions about how the White House plans to resolve the ongoing crisis and whether the U.S. would support Chen's request for asylum, referring all inquiries to the State Department.
"We are in conversations now -- not we, the State Department folks in Beijing -- and I simply can't give you a moment-by-moment update on that," Carney said.
Chen Guangcheng's 'Mission Impossible' Escape
As controversy swirled in Washington and Beijing, U.S. officials Thursday described Chen's dramatic journey to the U.S. embassy last week as a "mission impossible" operation.
U.S. officials said 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.
U.S. Defends Chen Guangcheng Deal
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 a 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 said 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 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 Hillary 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 Thursday 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.
Chen Guangcheng Tells Congress He 'Fears for My Other Family Members' Lives'
But now, Chen, calling members of Congress from his hospital room in Beijing, said he "really fears for my other family members' lives" and suspected that all of the villagers who helped him escape house arrest and get to the embassy "are also receiving retribution."
"I'm most concerned right now is the safety of my mother, my brothers and I really want to know what's going on with them," he said.
Concluding the call, Chen said he wanted "to thank all of you for your care and for your love."
Despite neither body of Congress being in session this week, Rep. Chris Smith, the chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, convened a hearing Thursday to examine Chen Guangcheng's quandary as he sought safe travel out of China.
"It was a great relief that I and millions around the world learned of his escape and his reaching safety at the American embassy in Beijing on Friday morning. Yet it is with equally great concern that I convene this hearing of the China Commission today," Smith, R-N.J., said before Chen called into the hearing. "Chen has, since leaving the American embassy in Beijing, expressed an earnest desire to gain asylum for himself and for his family. Questions indeed arise as to whether or not Chen was pressured to leave the U.S. compound."
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said that Chen's case "is not an anomaly" but "symptomatic of pervasive human rights abuses committed by the Chinese government" against its own citizens. Wolf said he will formally request a congressional review of all cable traffic, classified or otherwise, that surrounded the negotiations for Chen to leave the embassy.
"It is hard to comprehend why the administration would accept at face value assurances that Chen would be safe upon exiting U.S. protection. You wonder if there were other forces at work," Wolf said. "Had word come down from on high to resolve the Chen situation, no matter what, prior to the arrivals of secretaries [Hillary] Clinton and [Tim] Geithner, who were headed to Beijing this week for high-level economic and foreign policy talks? Was there even a hint of coercion? Was there any coercion, subtle coercion, forced coercion or pressure involved? What were the internal State Department and White House deliberations?"
Smith said he intends to convene another hearing of the commission on Chen in order to hear testimony from Obama administration witnesses.
"There are many questions, and there are even more concerns. How will the United States-China agreement on Chen and his family's safety be enforced? What happens if Chen or any member of his family suffers retaliation?" Smith asked. "The eyes of the world are watching to see that his wishes are honored by the Chinese government."
Asked if the president was concerned about Republican criticisms of the way his administration has handled the negotiations, Obama spokesman Carney told reporters, "I can assure you that the president is not concerned about political back-and-forth on this issue.
"He is focused on the need to advance U.S. interests in our broad-based relationship with China, very important economic, diplomatic relationships with China," Carney said. "He has and will continue to make a priority in that relationship or part of that relationship an open and frank discussion of our concerns about human rights. And that's his focus. It is absolutely in our national interest for us to pursue that kind of broad-based agenda with the Chinese."
Chen Guangcheng's Change of Heart
Since the U.S.-Chinese agreement on Chen, 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 said 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 against 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 Chen's 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. 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. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman has demanded that the United States apologize for the incident for the good of relations.
Clinton Thursday 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, begging to leave with Clinton, according to the Daily Beast. 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.