BEIJING - A senior Obama administration official said Thursday that the United States recognizes that Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident lawyer, wants to leave China, an apparent reversal of Chen’s earlier stance that injected new uncertainty into a tense diplomatic situation.
The crisis had briefly appeared resolved ahead of high-level economic talks here when Chen earlier embraced a plan to remain in China.
As the State Department tried to reassess options for Chen, US diplomats were barred from seeing Chen at the hospital in central Beijing where he is receiving treatment for an injured foot.
Chen told reporters in a series of telephone interviews since being admitted to the hospital Wednesday afternoon that he and his family feel insecure in the hands of Chinese authorities and would like to go to the United States.
“It is clear now in the last 12 to 15 hours they as a family have had a change of heart about whether they want to stay in China,’’ said the State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner are attending a two-day conference here on economic and strategic issues. The two Cabinet members spoke at the conference Thursday, along with the Chinese president, Hu Jintao.
In her speech, Clinton urged China to protect human rights, saying “all governments have to answer our citizens’ aspirations for dignity and the rule of law.’’
Meanwhile, the administration’s handling of the Chen case drew a harsh attack from Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican candidate for president. Campaigning in Virginia, Romney accused the Obama administration of rushing to complete the deal before Clinton arrived for the high-level meetings and failing “to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would assure the safety of Mr. Chen and his family.’’
Chen’s reversal from wanting to stay in China after his escape nearly two weeks ago from harsh house arrest in eastern China and his six-day stay at the US embassy left the administration struggling to come up with a new solution that would satisfy Chen, and be amenable to the Chinese.
A key question facing the Obama administration will be China’s reaction if Chen insists on leaving China.
If Chen requested asylum in the United States, he would have to get a passport and apply for a visa. Another possibility would be for Chen to go to another country.
For his part, Chen suggested leaving China with Clinton.
“My fervent hope is that it would be possible for me and my family to leave for the US on Hillary Clinton’s plane,’’ he said in an interview with The Daily Beast.
The Chinese government, which issued a harsh statement Wednesday criticizing the United States for its handling of Chen, skirted the issue Thursday. A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin, said at a regular briefing at the ministry that Chen was a free person and, as far as he knew, was living in his town in Shandong province.
The circumstances of Chen’s departure from the US embassy on Wednesday were also still in dispute.
The US ambassador, Gary Locke, reiterated Thursday that Chen had not been coerced into leaving the embassy and insisted that the dissident lawyer had left of his free will after a plan had been worked out with the Chinese government that he and his family could relocate to a city close to Beijing where he would pursue his law studies.
On Wednesday evening, US officials said they would do all they could to see Chen. By not being able to talk to Chen in person, the administration was unable to determine a precise path forward for him, a senior official said.
Whether the Chinese government was actively preventing US officials from visiting Chen in the hospital, even during visiting hours, was not immediately clear. But the longer the US officials were cut off from personal contact with Chen the more difficult it could become for the United States to reach a solution that satisfied the Chinese authorities.
US officials spoke to Chen, 40, by telephone Thursday and met with his wife, Yuan Weijing, at a location near the hospital, the official said.
As if to reinforce Chen’s fears, Chinese authorities Thursday stepped up their already onerous security restrictions on a number of friends and supporters who had encouraged or helped carry out his flight from Shandong.
After a harrowing 300-mile journey from his hometown to Beijing, six days sequestered in the US embassy, and a sudden release into a large Chinese public hospital where he did not have the protection of the US officials he seemed to expect, Chen was probably traumatized, his steely demeanor in tough times finally punctured.