US says it's still trying to help Chinese activist

MATTHEW LEE and SCOTT McDONALD
May 3, 2012
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In this photo released by the US Embassy Beijing Press Office, blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng is wheeled into a hospital by U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, right, and an unidentified official at left, in Beijing Wednesday May 2, 2012. (AP Photo/US Embassy Beijing Press Office, HO)

BEIJING (AP) — U.S. officials said Thursday they are still trying to help a blind Chinese activist who says he fears for his family's safety, and denied he was pressured to leave the American Embassy to resettle inside China.

The diplomatic dispute between Washington and Beijing over Chen Guangcheng is sensitive for the Obama administration. It risks appearing soft on human rights during an election year or looking as though it rushed to resolve Chen's case ahead of strategic talks this week with China attended by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

After fleeing persecution by local officials in his rural town and seeking refuge in the embassy in Beijing for six days, Chen left Wednesday to get treatment for a leg injury at a Beijing hospital and be reunited with his family. U.S. officials said the Chinese government had agreed to resettle him in a university town of his choice.

Chen, 40, initially said he had assurances that he would be safe in China — which is what U.S. officials said he wanted — but hours later he told The Associated Press he feared for his family's safety unless they are all spirited abroad. He also said he felt pressured to leave, both by Chinese and U.S. officials.

U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke told a news conference that he could say "unequivocally" that Chen was never pressured to leave. Locke said Chen left the embassy after talking twice on the telephone with his wife, who was waiting at the hospital.

"We asked him was he ready to leave. He jumped up very excited and said 'let's go' in front of many, many witnesses," Locke said.

A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Thursday that further contacts with Chen and his wife show that his views on what is best for them "may be changing."

The official said the U.S. side was seeking to find out if Chen and his wife had a change of heart about his earlier decision to stay in China.

China objects to any U.S. involvement in its internal affairs and has demanded an apology from Washington for harboring Chen, who ran afoul of local officials in his rural town for exposing forced abortions and other abuses.

The murky circumstances of Chen's departure from the embassy, and his sudden appeal to leave China after previously declaring he wanted to stay, overshadowed the opening of annual talks Thursday between China and the United States.

Clinton said in a speech that China must protect human rights, rejecting Beijing's criticism of the U.S. for getting involved in Chen's case.

China's President Hu Jintao told the gathering 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 remained at the Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing on Thursday, guarded by a handful of uniformed Chinese police and about 10 plainclothes officers.

A shaken Chen told the AP 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.

"I think we'd like to rest in a place outside of China," Chen said, 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 and his family would be able 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.

"The U.S. Embassy and the U.S. government were quite supportive of me leaving. I don't know why," Chen said on Wednesday.

Chen became an international human rights figure and inspiration to many ordinary Chinese after running afoul of local government officials for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations 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.

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Associated Press writer Alexa Olesen contributed to this report.