BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng appealed on Thursday for asylum in the United States, throwing into doubt an agreement used to coax him out of hiding in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and fanning U.S.-China tensions at a sensitive time.
The standoff appeared particularly troublesome for the Obama administration, with Chen saying he now fears for his and his family’s safety if he stays in China as planned under a deal Washington had called a good outcome for the dissident.
China’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on Chen’s request to leave the country and repeated its criticism of the way the United States had handled the issue as “unacceptable”.
Chen, a self-taught legal activist, left the U.S. Embassy on Wednesday and is now under Chinese control in a Beijing hospital. He had taken refuge at the U.S. mission for six days after escaping house arrest and left after U.S. officials assured him that Beijing had promised to improve his circumstances.
U.S. officials defended their handling of the case, but pressure mounted on President Barack Obama from opposition Republicans, who said the White House must ensure the dissident’s safety.
“It should have been obvious to U.S. officials all along that there is no way to guarantee Mr. Chen’s safety so long as he is within reach of the Chinese police state,” Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
“The Administration must support Mr. Chen’s freedom to choose where he and his family can live in safety,” the Florida Republican said.
Some activist supporters of Chen also criticized the U.S. handling of his case.
“We have learned that when people come to the United States embassy they are not in fact 100 percent safe,” said Reggie Littlejohn, president of the advocacy group Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.
“They can be turned over to the Chinese authorities from whom they were attempting to escape,” she told a news conference in Washington.
Littlejohn suggested Chen had formally requested asylum in the United States, but another close supporter of Chen, Bob Fu of ChinaAid, said he had spoken to Chen Wednesday night and that the activist had not used the word “asylum.”
Chen said on Thursday by telephone from hospital, where he was escorted by U.S. officials and was being treated for a broken foot, that he had changed his mind after speaking to his wife, who spoke of recent threats made against his family.
“I feel very unsafe. My rights and safety cannot be assured here,” he said. His family, who were with him at the hospital, backed his decision to try to reach the United States, he added.
The activist, citing descriptions from his wife, Yuan Weijing, said his family had been surrounded by Chinese officials who menaced them and filled the family home. Chen, from a village in rural Shandong province, has two children.
“When I was inside the American Embassy, I didn’t have my family, and so I didn’t understand some things. After I was able to meet them, my ideas changed.”
U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Gary Locke told reporters, however, that Chen had made it “very, very clear” to U.S. officials that he wanted to stay in China.
A senior U.S. official said the United States was seeking to clarify Chen’s wishes and continued to discuss his fate with the Chinese government.
“When we feel that we have a clear view of what his final decision is, we will do what we can to help him achieve that,” the official said.
The Chen case came at an awkward time for both nations: U.S. President Barack Obama will be sensitive to any criticism of the handling of Chen in the run-up to a November presidential election and China is struggling to push through its own leadership change late this year.
The carefully choreographed power transition in Beijing has already been wrong-footed by the downfall of ambitious senior Communist Party official Bo Xilai after he was caught up in a scandal linked to the apparent murder of a British businessman.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton found herself in the eye of the diplomatic storm on Thursday, turning up for the opening of annual bilateral talks in Beijing which have been overshadowed, but not derailed, by the Chen case.
She used the occasion to urge China to protect human rights but made no specific mention of Chen, whom she had spoken to on Wednesday after he left the embassy.
“Of course, as part of our dialogue, the United States raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Clinton said. “We believe all governments have to answer our citizens’ aspirations for dignity and the rule of law and that no nation can or should deny those rights.”
It was unclear whether Chen would be able to travel to the United States. U.S. officials appeared no longer to be with him on Thursday, with the dissident saying he had still not had an opportunity to explain his change of heart to the U.S. side.
“I hope the U.S. will help me leave immediately. I want to go there for medical treatment,” Chen said from the hospital. A pack of camera crews and reporters was waiting outside, kept away from the entrance by police.
Washington had hoped its deal with Beijing over Chen would defuse the crisis. Both Clinton and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner were in the Chinese capital for this week’s talks – in which the United States will aim to secure more cooperation from China on trade and international flashpoints such as North Korea, Iran and Syria.
Under the deal, according to U.S. officials, Chen and his family would have been relocated within the country in safety and he would have been allowed to pursue his studies.
‘GET OUR FAMILY OUT’
But Chinese authorities have taken a tough tone, criticising what they called U.S. meddling and demanding an apology for the way U.S. diplomats handled the case.
Chinese President Hu Jintao made no mention of the Chen case in his remarks to the U.S.-China talks but stressed that the two nations needed trust.
“It is impossible for China and the United States to see eye-to-eye on every issue, but both sides must know how to respect each other,” he said.
Earlier, in comments aired on CNN, Chen said: “I would like to say to President Obama, please do everything you can to get our family out.”
Chen, 40, is a legal activist who campaigned against forced abortions under China’s “one-child” policy. He escaped 19 months of house arrest, during which he and his family faced beatings and threats, late last month.
U.S. officials had said Chen left the embassy of his own free will because he wanted to be reunited with his wife and children. They said he wanted to remain in China and never asked for asylum.
“He knew the stark choices in front of him,” U.S. Ambassador Locke told reporters of Chen, who at one point in talks with the Americans demanded to speak to Premier Wen Jiabao. “He knew and was very aware that he might have to spend many, many years in the embassy. But he was prepared to do that …
“And he was fully aware of and talked about what might happen to his family if he stayed in the embassy and they stayed in the village in Shandong province.”
Chen’s dramatic escape from house arrest and his flight to the U.S. Embassy have made him a symbol of resistance to China’s shackles on dissent, and the deal struck by Beijing and Washington would have kept him an international test case of how tight or loose those restrictions remain.
“He made it very, very clear from the very, very beginning that he wanted to stay in China, that he wanted to be part of the struggle to improve the human rights within China,” Locke said.
Now, however, his change of mind throws not only his own future into doubt, but also raises questions about the wider U.S.-China relationship.
It could also prove politically costly for Obama, who has already been accused of being soft on China by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, Don Durfee, Lucy Hornby and Michael Martina in Beijing; Brian Rhoads, James Pomfret and Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong; and Arshad Mohammed and Paul Eckert in Washington.; Writing by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher, Nick Macfie and David Storey)