BEIJING — For several hours, it appeared the U.S. and China had struck a deal that would allow Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng to walk free — and avoid a diplomatic disaster.
American officials said Wednesday that they had obtained promises from Chinese authorities that the blind 40-year-old lawyer could live in a Chinese city of his choice and attend a university to continue his legal education. They portrayed Chen, who had dramatically fled house arrest in his village for the protection ofthe U.S. Embassyhundreds of miles away in Beijing, as exuberant over the deal.
But shortly after Chen was released from the embassy on Wednesday, he appeared to question whether officials had dealt with him in good faith. In a series of phone interviews from a hospital room, Chen said he had agreed to remain in China under the U.S.-devised deal only because American officials had told him that his wife would be beaten to death if he left the country.
“We’d like to rest in a place outside China,” Chen said in an interview late Wednesday with the Associated Press. He entreated U.S. officials for help in leaving for a safe refuge.
The cascade of events left U.S.-Chinese relations in a questionable state and threatened to deliver an embarrassing blow to the Obama administration.
American officials, who had hoped they were on the verge of a diplomatic triumph, denied that they had warned Chen that harm could come to his wife, and scrambled to convince skeptical Chinese activists and the world that in their six days of tense negotiations they sought only to do what Chen had wanted.
But the setback risked damage to the administration’s efforts to show itself strongly committed to the cause of human rights in China. And it threatened to prolong a diplomatic crisis with China a day before the opening of high-level talks aimed at smoothing relations on urgent issues including Iran, Syria and the global economy.
“This could look terrible for them,” said Douglas Paal, a former U.S. official and China analyst at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Chen fell afoul of Chinese authorities for his criticism of forced abortions and sterilizations committed under China’s one-child policy on population control. After seven years of prison and 16 months of house arrest, he fled Dongshigu with the help of fellow activists on April 26, in a dramatic escape to the U.S. Embassy that grabbed headlines around the world.
U.S. officials initially exulted over Wednesday’s deal. But only hours later, after Chen had been taken to a Beijing hospital for treatment of injuries suffered in his escape, he began to complain that he had been pressured to remain in China.
His activist friends amplified his protests, criticizing the United States, and demanded that he be allowed to leave the country. Zeng Jinyan, a close friend of Chen, said in tweets after speaking to him that he had explained to her that he left the embassy because he had feared he wouldn’t see his family again if he left the country.
Bob Fu, a friend of Chen who is now head of the Texas-based China Aid Assn., said Chen had agreed to the deal only because of threats to his family. He said the reports show that the United States “has abandoned Mr. Chen.”
U.S. diplomats, stunned at the turn of events, released pictures showing Chen happily mingling with them during the negotiations and insisting in interviews and statements that there had been no pressure and that he had wanted to remain in China. Victoria Nuland, the chief State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement that no U.S. official had spoken to Chen about threats to his wife or children. She did acknowledge that the authorities intended to send his family back to the eastern province of Shandong where they had been detained illegally and beaten by authorities.
“All our diplomacy was aimed at putting him in the best possible position to achieve his objectives,” Nuland said.
U.S. officials said they could not explain Chen’s seeming change of heart and the conflicts between the stories. He maintained that U.S. officials had left him in the hospital with no American present to protect him, another charge U.S. officials denied.
Some activists and experts speculated that Chen’s about-face may have occurred because of the pressure he has been under, combined with worries about what could happen to his family if he left the country. But others speculated that Chen may have been warned by his activist allies that he should simply not trust the Chinese government’s promises and that he needed to renew his efforts to seek refuge abroad.
“They may have told him that he simply shouldn’t trust the government,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a top China advisor to the Clinton administration at Brookings Institution who is close to U.S. and Chinese officials.
Some activists said they were surprised to hear that U.S. officials had received assurances from the Chinese about Chen’s freedom, especially after only six days of negotiations. U.S. officials told human rights activists in briefings Wednesday that they intended to collaborate with private rights groups to make sure that China lived up to its promises to allow Chen’s freedom, but they also acknowledged some uncertainty about whether China would make good.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged that uncertainty in a statement, in which she said that making China’s promises a reality “is the next crucial task.”
An American-based rights activist close to the developments said the United States has some political leverage in trying to hold China to its promises, because Beijing would want to avoid a worldwide outcry over mistreatment of Chen. Yet this activist said there is no real precedent for such a deal. “There just aren’t a lot of tools in the toolbox here,” said the activist.
Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor who has been advising Chen, said part of the administration’s plan was for President Obama to make a public statement of support for the deal, which would help guarantee that China’s top leaders would become involved. The U.S. supposition was that if the Chinese didn’t live up to their promises and the deal fell through, “the United States, having given him full backing until that moment, would use its influence to have him finally leave the country,” Cohen said.
Though U.S. officials insisted that the Chinese had been businesslike and cooperative in the negotiations, China also made known its displeasure at what it saw as foreign meddling again in sovereign issues. Liu Weimin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, declared that the U.S. actions “interfered in the domestic affairs of China,” and said Washington should apologize for its “abnormal means” of dealing with the Chen affair.
But the White House was not expected to apologize, particularly in an election year when Republicans foes have repeatedly accused Obama of apologizing too often to foreign powers.
Human rights in China has been an especially tricky political issue for Obama, whose team over the last term has been criticized by both Democrats, such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), and Republicans such as former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton for being insufficiently zealous in supporting activists against the authoritarian Chinese government.
One Republican,Rep. Christopher H. Smith(R-N.J.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs human rights subcommittee, trained his fire on the deal, saying he believed it was “artificial.”
“Who will monitor whether he is truly free?” Smith said.
Pierson reported from Beijing and Richter from Washington. Times staff writers Barbara Demick in New York, Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles, Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston and Kathleen Hennessey in Washington contributed to this report.