BEIJING (AP) — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told China on Thursday that it must protect human rights, in remarks that rejected Beijing's criticism of the U.S. for getting involved in the case of a blind dissident whose fate overshadowed the opening of annual talks between the powerful countries.
Clinton said at the opening of the talks on foreign policy and economic issues that the U.S. believes "all governments have to answer our citizens' aspirations for dignity and the rule of law and that no nation can or should deny those rights."
Her comments came as the dissident, Chen Guangcheng, pleaded for more help from Washington. The blind, self-taught lawyer took refuge in the U.S. Embassy after escaping house arrest, but left Wednesday to get treatment for a leg injury at a Beijing hospital. He initially said he had been assured that he would be safe in China, but hours later he said he fears for his family's safety unless they are all spirited abroad.
China already demanded an apology from the U.S. even before Chen balked at a deal in which he would remain in his homeland. Now that he wants to leave, the case is looming over talks in which Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are to discuss foreign policy and economic issues with their Chinese counterparts.
China's President Hu Jintao said at the opening of the talks 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-U.S. relations."
Neither Hu nor Clinton specifically mentioned Chen, who had spent six days holed up in the U.S. Embassy as senior officials in Beijing and Washington tussled over his fate. A shaken Chen told The Associated Press from his hospital room Wednesday that Chinese authorities had warned he would lose his opportunity to be reunited with his family if he stayed longer in the embassy.
U.S. officials verified that account. But they adamantly denied his contention that one American diplomat had warned him of a threat from the Chinese that his wife would be beaten to death if he did not get out of the embassy. They also denied his claim that American officials have left the hospital where he is being treated for a leg injury suffered in his escape.
"I think we'd like to rest in a place outside of China," Chen told the AP, appealing again for help from Washington. "Help my family and me leave safely."
Only hours earlier, U.S. officials said they had extracted from the Chinese government a promise that Chen would join his family and be allowed to start a new life in a university town in China, safe from the rural authorities who had abusively held him in prison and house arrest for nearly seven years.
Clinton spoke to Chen on the phone when he left the embassy and, in a statement, welcomed the resettlement agreement as one that "reflected his choices and our values."
The Chinese Foreign Ministry signaled its unhappiness with the entire affair, demanding that the U.S. apologize for giving Chen sanctuary at the embassy.
"What the U.S. side should do now is neither to continue misleading the public and making every excuse to shift responsibility and conceal its wrongdoing, nor to interfere in the domestic affairs of China," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a statement late Wednesday.
Clinton appears to have tried not to stir the controversy further Thursday by omitting in her speech part of her prepared remarks that read: "We continue to look to China to meet its international obligations to protect universal human rights and fundamental freedoms." Instead she said only that these issues are important and would be raised in the talks.
The murky circumstances of Chen's departure from the embassy, and his sudden appeal to leave China after declaring he wanted to stay, are hanging over talks that were to focus on the global economic crisis and hotspots such as North Korea, Iran, Syria and Sudan.
Clinton mentioned those problems in her speech, saying it was important that China and the United States work together to tackle problems from climate change to Syria.
Chen, 40, became an international human rights figure and inspiration to many ordinary Chinese after running afoul of local government officials for exposing forced abortions carried out as part of China's one-child policy. He served four years in prison on what supporters said were fabricated charges, then was kept under house arrest with his wife, daughter and mother, with the adults often being roughed up by officials and his daughter searched and harassed.
Blinded by childhood fever but intimately familiar with the terrain of his village, Chen slipped from his guarded farmhouse in eastern China's Shandong province at night on April 22. He made his way through fields and forest, along roads and across a narrow river to meet the first of several supporters who helped bring him to Beijing and the embassy. It took three days for his guards to realize he was gone.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner disputed Chen's claim that he was left alone by the Americans at the hospital.
"There were U.S. officials in the building," the spokesman told reporters. "I believe some of his medical team was in fact with him at the hospital." He said U.S. officials would continue visiting Chen while he was there.
It is not clear how the U.S. could be party to an agreement on Chen's safety inside China when it has no power to enforce the conditions of his life there.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said no U.S. official said anything to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children. Nor did the Chinese relay any such threats to American diplomats, she said. She did confirm that if he did not leave the embassy the Chinese intended to return his family to their home province of Shandong, where they had been detained and beaten by local officials, and that they would lose any chance of being reunited.
Associated Press writer Alexa Olesen contributed to this report.