BEIJING -- Blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng does not want political asylum and will instead stay in China with assurances from the Chinese government that he and his family can live a normal life, a senior U.S. official said Wednesday.
The dramatic announcement, after days of behind-the-scenes negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials, came shortly after Chen was reunited with his wife and two children at a local hospital, where he was treated for non-life-threatening injuries sustained during his escape from house arrest more than a week ago.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed for the first time that Chen, 40, had sought protection at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where staff agreed to help on "humanitarian grounds" and gave him medical attention.
"Mr. Chen made clear from the beginning he wanted to remain in China and that he wanted his stay in the United States Embassy to be temporary," the official said, adding that Chen's priority was to be reunited with his family.
As Chen, carrying crutches and wearing his signature sunglasses, was driven out of the embassy to a nearby hospital, he received a phone call from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had just arrived in the Chinese capital for two days of pre-scheduled high-level talks.
In an agreement carved out by U.S. and Chinese officials to resolve the situation, Chen will be relocated to a safe environment and allowed to attend a university where he will be free of legal harassment. American diplomats were assured they could check in on Chen to see if he was still being treated fairly.
Meanwhile, Chinese officials agreed to investigate Chen's extralegal detention in his village of Dongshigu, where he was held without charge under house arrest for 19 months. During that time, he and his family were reportedly regularly beaten, harassed and denied medical attention.
Promises were also made not to punish supporters who helped Chen escape to the embassy.
"The resolution of Chen Guangcheng's escape into U.S. diplomatic protection shows cooler heads prevailed on the side of the Chinese government," said Phelim Kine, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. "The ball was every bit in their court."
Kine added: "But the devil is in the details. The fact is, the safety and well-being of Chen Guangcheng, his family, friends and supporters is at risk in China unless there are some very serious precautions taken to protect them from reprisals."
It was still unclear late Wednesday whether one of the supporters who drove Chen to Beijing, He Peirong, had been located after being missing for several days. Chen's nephew, Chen Kegui, is also missing after fighting with men who raided his home searching for his uncle.
China's Foreign Ministry released a terse statement over state-run media that Chen had left the embassy on his volition after staying there six days. The ministry also demanded an apology from the U.S. for taking a Chinese citizen "via abnormal means." The statement was also read on national television and radio -– an extraordinary measure given the widespread silence and censorship that surrounded Chen's story in China.
The U.S. official said Washington would not apologize, explaining: "This is an extraordinary case under exceptional circumstances. ... We don't expect it to be repeated."
Questions remain about how seriously China will follow its pledge to ensure Chen's safety given the ordinarily limited tolerance authorities have for dissent.
Chen told American diplomats he wanted to stay in China to continue his work. Many Chinese dissidents who leave their home develop conflicted attitudes about their departure after discovering their diminished influence overseas.
"Chen Guangcheng is no doubt aware exile is historically a one-way ticket to political and social irrelevancy, and he wanted to avoid that," Kine said.
Some activists were immediately skeptical of the deal to keep Chen in China.
Beijing-based human rights lawyer Teng Biao wrote in Chinese on Twitter: "What's important is that there's no possibility for Chen to have absolute freedom if he stays in China. If he insists on staying and the U.S. government listened to promises from the Chinese government that Chen’s safety will be assured, the outcome will be devastating."
Chen enraged local officials in Shandong for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations and served a prison sentence on what's widely agreed to be trumped-up charges of disrupting order. The government's inaction during Chen's subsequent house arrest was seen by human rights defenders as a signal of complicity.
In that time, Chen garnered worldwide attention from activists, diplomats and even Hollywood star Christian Bale. Scores of visitors hoping to check on Chen during his house detention were repelled by hired thugs.
"This was not easy for the Chinese government," the U.S. official said of the unprecedented agreement to release a dissident conditionally.
-- David Pierson
Photo: Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng is seen in a wheelchair pushed by a nurse at haoyang Hospital in Beijing. Credit: Jordan Pouille / Getty Images