Chinese blind activist out of US embassy amid war of words

Conflicting reports prompt doubt as to whether Chen Guangcheng, who was taken to hospital, left willingly, while US and China spar through statements.

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BEIJING // A blind activist who took refuge in the United States Embassy in Beijing after escaping house arrest said he was told that Chinese authorities would beat his wife to death if he did not leave.

A US official denied that the threat was made, but said Chen Guangcheng was told his family would be sent back to the rural town of Shandong if he stayed in the embassy.

Mr Chen, speaking from the hospital room where he was taken after leaving the embassy, also said US officials told him his family would be sent back home if he stayed under their protection. But he added that, at one point, he was told his wife would be killed.

Mr Chen was taken to a Beijing hospital yesterday with the US ambassador, Gary Locke, shortly after the American secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, arrived in the Chinese capital for talks that start today.

Initial reports said that Mr Chen left the embassy after a deal that ensured his safety and that his family would be treated humanely and moved to a safe place.

Mr Chen’s case had threatened to overshadow the talks, which are likely to see Washington and Beijing grapple over issues including the nuclear programmes in Iran and North Korea, the violence in Syria and arms sales to Taiwan.

In a statement, Ms Clinton said Mr Chen would stay in China and begin a university course.

“Mr Chen has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment. Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task,” she said.

“The United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr Chen and his family in the days, weeks and years ahead.”

China reacted by telling the US to “stop misleading the public” about Mr Chen’s case.

Mr Chen’s lawyer, Li Jinsong, said the activist, who has campaigned against forced abortions and sterilisations linked to China’s one-child policy, was “a free citizen” who would no longer be targeted by authorities.

Local officials had prevented the self-taught lawyer from leaving his home in Shandong province since he was released from a four-year prison sentence in September 2010, served over what rights campaigners said were trumped-up charges.

Some earlier reports suggested asylum in the US was Mr Chen’s only real option following his flight to the embassy.

The activist left the “of his own volition” after a six-day stay, according to China’s Xinhua news agency. It indicated Beijing was angry at the US handling of the case.

Liu Weimin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said Mr Chen was “taken into the embassy in an irregular manner, and that China expresses its strong dissatisfaction”.

“The US method was interference in Chinese domestic affairs, and this is totally unacceptable to China. China demands that the United States apologise over this, thoroughly investigate this incident, punish those who are responsible and give assurances that such incidents will not recur,” he said.

The US yesterday indicated it would not apologise, saying Mr Chen’s case was exceptional.

China may have agreed to Mr Chen remaining in the country without restrictions because he was not a threat to the regime, suggested Barry Sautman, a political analyst and associate professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Unlike campaigners such as Liu Xiaobo, the jailed 2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Mr Chen’s activism does not focus on large-scale political reform but is primarily about a single issue.

The central government insists it does not support forced abortions, and instead often blame local officials trying to meet local birth-control targets.

After Mr Chen’s flight to the embassy and his global media coverage, Mr Sautman said Chinese officials would be “very careful” how they treat the 40-year-old activist. The US has promised to monitor his case.

* With additional reporting by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse