BEIJING -- Blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Wednesday of his own volition, U.S. and Chinese officials said, but reports surfaced almost immediately that the dissident was coerced by threats against his family and that he has reiterated his desire to leave China.
A close friend of Chen, Beijing activist Zeng Jinyan, also said the deal with U.S. officials to keep the dissident in China was forced on him to avoid harm to his family and supporters. Zeng said she was told by Chen’s wife that if her husband didn’t leave the embassy, she and her children would be forced to return to their village, where thugs armed with sticks were waiting to beat them to death.
U.S. officials announced hours earlier that they had struck a deal with Chinese authorities that would allow Chen to remain in China and work at a university safe from reprisals for his escape from house arrest and his six-day refuge at the U.S. Embassy. A State Department spokeswoman in Washington insisted that Chen never sought political asylum in the United States and that he decided to leave the embassy to ensure he could be with his family.
Activist Zeng, the wife of prominent government critic Hu Jia, wrote several tweets saying Chen agreed to stay in China only because his family was threatened.
Zeng, who confirmed with The Times that her tweets were genuine, said Chen explained in a phone conversation that he wanted to leave the country but wouldn’t see his family again if he did.
"Guangcheng didn’t want to leave the U.S. Embassy, but he had no choice. If he hadn’t left, Yuan Weijing would have been sent back to Shandong immediately," Zeng said of Chen's wife and the province where the family sustained beatings and threats throughout Chen's 19 months under house arrest. Zeng said Chen's wife pleaded for her help, saying "Jinyan, I am so scared…"
Bob Fu of Texas-based ChinaAid Assn. also said he had received reliable reports that Chen's decision to leave the embassy was done reluctantly because "serious threats to his immediate family members were made by Chinese government." Fu said the reports show the United States "has abandoned Mr. Chen."
Chen fell afoul of Chinese authorities for his criticism of forced abortions and sterilizations committed under China's strict one-child policy on population control. He was twice tried on charges seen as politically motivated punishment for his activism. He was sentenced to six years in prison, then confined to his home in the village of Donshigu after his release.
Chen's dramatic escape from within a cordon of security troops grabbed headlines around the world and threatened to plunge the U.S. and China into a diplomatic crisis on the eve of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's visit to Beijing for economic and security talks.
In Washington, State Department officials, apparently fearing criticism of the U.S. role in the Chen affair, insisted that the dissident never asked for political asylum in the United States and that Chinese officials hadn't made threats against Chen's family during their negotiations with U.S. officials.
"At no time did any U.S. official speak to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children," Victoria Nuland, the chief State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement. "Nor did Chinese officials make any such threats to us."
U.S. officials made clear to Chen that if he stayed at the embassy, "Chinese officials had indicated to us that his family would be returned to Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for reunification."
"At every opportunity, he expressed his desire to stay in China, reunify with his family, continue his education and work for reform in his country," Nuland said. "All our diplomacy was directed at putting him in the best possible position to achieve his objectives."
In an interview at the Beijing hospital room where Chen was taken after leaving the embassy, the activist told the Associated Press that the threats against his family compelled him to end his stay under U.S. protection and that he wanted to leave China but feared for his family's safety if left behind.
Chen was taken to the VIP ward of a hospital in Beijing's eastern Chaoyang district Wednesday afternoon. He was accompanied by the U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke. Chen was reunited there with his wife and two children, U.S. officials said.
Chen hadn't seen his 6-year-old daughter since his escape. Chen's 8-year-old son lived with a relative and hadn't seen his father since he went under house arrest, a senior U.S. official said.
Reporters were blocked by guards outside a hallway leading to Chen's room at the hospital. Chen was being treated for a foot injury suffered after scaling his farmhouse wall during the escape, a U.S. official said.
Jiang Tianyong, a friend and fellow lawyer, told reporters outside Chen's hospital room that the deal that brought Chen out of U.S. shelter would give him "total freedom," and that he "can do anything within Chinese law."
-- David Pierson in Beijing, Paul Richter in Washington and Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Photo: State Department legal advisor Harold Koh, left, assists blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng as he is wheeled into a hospital by U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, right, after leaving the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Wednesday after a six-day stay that challenged U.S.-China relations ahead of key economic and security talks this week. Credit: U.S. Embassy Beijing Press Office