BEIJING - Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng left the refuge of the US Embassy in Beijing for a hospital Wednesday, but was quickly cordoned off by Chinese police and reportedly seized by misgivings about his decision, as an apparent diplomatic triumph risked dissolving into a potentially damaging episode in US-China relations.
After four days of secret negotiations, US diplomats initially announced, then later scrambled to defend, their role in forging an agreement that they said contained extraordinary Chinese promises to allow Chen - a self-taught lawyer known for criticizing Chinese policies on abortion - to move his family to Beijing, where he would begin a new life as a university student.
Chinese officials, by contrast, broke their official silence on Chen by firing a broadside complaining about US interference in China’s internal affairs. The Foreign Ministry demanded an apology, which State Department officials declined to give.
The confusing, chaotic episode coincided with a high-level visit to China by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who arrived in Beijing with an entourage of diplomatic and trade officials intent on smoothing relations and increasing economic and cultural ties.
The Obama administration wants greater cooperation from China on trade, currency rates, Iran oil sanctions, and North Korean nuclear activities, but with the Chen case, the nettlesome issue of human rights threatens that agenda.
Chen revived the human rights issue by escaping from de facto house arrest in his home village in Shandong Province on April 22, seeking US protection in the Chinese capital four days later. US officials said Wednesday that they accepted him at the embassy on humanitarian grounds.
Chen was already well known to US officials. According to WikiLeaks, between April 2007 and July 24, 2009, Chen’s name was included in at least 37 State Department cables. His was one of three “key cases’’ mentioned during the May 2008 resumption of the US-China human rights dialogue after a six-year hiatus.
So US officials were elated that the Chinese government said it would allow Chen and his family to move away from their village and pledged to investigate why authorities there allowed armed thugs in plainclothes to confine the activist in his house and prevent others from seeing him.
But Teng Biao, Chen’s lawyer, said late Wednesday that he spoke with Chen several times during the evening. “He felt his safety is threatened. He feels pressure now,’’ Teng said. “From his language, I can tell that the decision to leave the embassy was not 100 percent his idea.’’
“I spent most of the time trying to persuade him to go to the USA,’’ Teng said. “We discussed what to do next, staying in China or going to the States. After some discussion with friends, I feel his safety cannot be guaranteed if he stays in China.’’
Chen said from his hospital room that Chinese authorities had warned he would lose his opportunity to be reunited with his family if he stayed in the embassy. US officials verified that account.
“I think we’d like to rest in a place outside of China,’’ Chen told the Associated Press. “Help my family and me leave safely.’’
Some China analysts said they saw the pledges from Beijing not only as a human rights achievement but as an indication that the central government wants to assert its authority over renegade or corrupt provincial authorities.
In addition, the agreement appeared to take Chen off the bilateral agenda. US officials released a photograph showing a smiling Chen with Ambassador Gary Locke and insisted that the activist left the embassy of his own volition.
But friends of Chen criticized US officials for leaving him unaccompanied at the hospital, where he was treated for a foot injury. Adding to the confusion, Chen told several reporters by phone from his hospital bed that he wants to move to the United States with his family.
Under intense international scrutiny, US diplomats scrambled to provide their version of events.
“I was there,’’ Kurt Campbell, the State Department’s top diplomat for East Asia, said in a statement. “Chen made the decision to leave the embassy after he knew his family was safe and at the hospital waiting for him, and after twice being asked by Ambassador Locke if he was ready to go. He said, ‘Zou’ - let’s go.’’ Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.