WASHINGTON — A diplomatic crisis over the fate of a Chinese activist took a confusing new turn Thursday as Chen Guangcheng signaled during a dramatic phone call to a congressional commission in Washington that he may want to live permanently in China rather than flee to the United States, as he had declared hours earlier.
Speaking from a hospital in China where he was being treated for a leg injury, Chen told the congressional panel through an interpreter that he wanted to come to the U.S. only “to rest.”
The blind dissident left unclear in his phone call whether he was seeking permanent political asylum or wished to accept an apparently unraveling deal — negotiated by U.S. officials — that would have allowed him to remain in China with promises that the government would leave him alone and not continue to punish him.
Chen was imprisoned for four years after exposing abuses associated with the country’s one-child policy. He was released in September 2010, but local officials had confined him to his home, beating him on several occasions, activists said.
Chen threw U.S.-Chinese relations into turmoil by escaping from house arrest April 22 and finding refuge atthe U.S. Embassyin Beijing.
On Friday, wire services reported that the Chinese Foreign Ministry had said Chen could apply to study abroad, possibly opening the door to a resolution.
“I want to come to the U.S. to rest,” the 40-year-old activist said over speakerphone at a meeting Thursday of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. “I have not had a rest in 10 years.”
The hints that Chen might be changing his mind again were reinforced by a statement by one of his friends, activist Guo Yushan, after a phone conversation he had with Chen about 11 p.m. Thursday, local time.
Guo, who helped Chen in his flight to Beijing, said in an Internet posting early Friday that there had been “no change in his intentions” from earlier in the week, when Chen appeared to accept the deal to remain in China.
The statement said Chen wanted only several months’ rest in the United States and that he continued to “respect” the U.S.-Chinese diplomacy that led to the deal.
Guo’s statement was distributed in Chinese on Twitter and Sina Weibo, the Chinese social media site. It was translated into English by another Chinese activist, Michael Anti.
Chen’s flight tothe U.S. Embassystrained U.S.-Chinese relations amid high-level economic and security talks between the two countries this week in Beijing.
Chen seemed to repudiate the deal Wednesday, accusing U.S. officials in interviews of pressuring him to leave the embassy, warning that his family could be harmed if he remained.
U.S. officials denied the accusation, although the apparent unraveling of the deal sparked criticism in the U.S. of the Obama administration’s effort to work out a quick resolution of the issue.
In his remarks to the commission, however, Chen had only praise for administration officials. He said he hoped to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is in Beijing for the economic and security talks and who presided over the negotiations with the Chinese on the deal for Chen.
“I hope I can get more help from her,” Chen said. “I always want to thank her face to face.”
Still, he said, he remained frightened for relatives and friends who assisted in his escape from a village in Shandong province in eastern China, where he’d been held under house arrest for 19 months. He injured his leg while climbing a farmhouse wall during his escape.
After six days holed up in the U.S. Embassy, Chen was coaxed out Wednesday.
“All the villagers who helped me are facing retribution,” Chen said in the call to the commission. “I’m concerned most right now with the safety of my mother and brothers. I really want to know what’s going on with them.”
Activists and experts are offering several explanations for Chen’s varying statements. One is that, after years of physical deprivation and anxiety about his and his family’s safety, he is in a delicate psychological condition.
Another is that he is desperately trying to gauge whether to accept Chinese authorities’ promise that they would allow him to live in a coastal city without harassment, despite the government’s long history of repression of activists. It is unclear whether the government, which is angry over what it sees as U.S. meddling, would allow him to leave for the U.S.
Chen’s activist friends are themselves divided on whether he should take the risk of staying in China and pursuing his cause or flee.
U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke said in a series of interviews with U.S. news organization that American officials would be sitting down with the celebrated activist to explore his desires and “review all the options.”
But asked whether the U.S. would accede to Chen’s request to leave the country, Locke declined to make a commitment.
“We’re not about to make promises we cannot keep,” he told NBC. Locke was speaking before the reported statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
Locke said that U.S. diplomats had sought only what was good for Chen. He said that earlier in the week, when Chen had said he did not want to leave the Embassy, U.S. officials had begun preparations to allow him to live in the building for “several years.”
Meanwhile, two days of U.S.-China talks got underway with top Chinese officials calling for cooperation but also signaling their displeasure with Washington’s behavior.
Clinton, while not mentioning Chen by name, said China cannot deny the aspirations of their citizens “for dignity and the rule of law.”
Chinese President Hu Jintao said the two nations must respect each other’s concerns because any worsening of relations would pose “grave” risks for the world.
“They exchanged barbs obliquely,” said Christopher K. Johnson, a former top CIA analyst on China who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
He said that with Chen at a Chinese hospital and out of U.S. control, American leverage had declined. The issue now, he said, was whether China would agree to accommodate Chen.
Although many top Chinese officials are pragmatists who want to end the crisis and return to transacting normal business with Washington, Johnson said, U.S. intervention has stirred up security officials and others who want to take a strong stand against what they view as meddling.
“I get the feeling that the nationalist impulses may have stronger play here,” he said.
As U.S. officials struggled for a solution in Beijing, criticism was intensifying in Washington. Reps.Christopher H. Smith(R-N.J.) and Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) complained at the commission hearing that the hasty deal didn’t guarantee Chen’s safety or his family’s.
“We have to take with a grain of salt when he gush-
es with gratitude,” Smith said. The administration “dropped the ball,” he said.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney seized on the issue during a campaign swing through Virginia. He called Chen’s departure from U.S. protection “a day of shame for the Obama administration” and a dark day for the cause of freedom.
Times staff writers Barbara Demick in New York, David Pierson in Beijing, Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles and Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.