BEIJING -- A U.S. official said Washington was reassessing a blind Chinese activist's wish to remain in China after learning that he now feared for his safety.
Chen Guangcheng's "view of what the best thing for him and his family is may be changing," said the official, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity Thursday.
The official did not say the U.S. could get Chen and his family out of China, but said Washington was trying to help the 40-year-old dissident.
The remarks come as Chen has been telling Western journalists he felt pressured to leave the U.S. Embassy, where he spent nearly a week after escaping house arrest in his home province of Shandong 11 days ago. He left the embassy on Wednesday.
U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke reiterated Washington’s stance at a news briefing Thursday that Chen was never pressured to leave the embassy.
"He was excited and eager about leaving," Locke said.
American and Chinese negotiators appeared to have brokered a deal Wednesday to keep Chen and his family in China with assurances they would not face reprisals.
But the self-taught lawyer reportedly changed his mind after hearing about threats to his family by authorities if he didn't leave U.S. protection.
"My fervent hope is that it would be possible for me and my family to leave for the U.S. on [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton's plane,” Chen told the Daily Beast from a local hospital where he's still believed to be with his wife and two children.
Repeated calls by The Times to Chen's cellphone went unanswered and attempts to reach Chen at the hospital were blocked by guards and police.
Clinton, along with other senior U.S. officials, is in Beijing for a two-day strategic and economic summit that closes Friday.
In her opening remarks at the meeting, Clinton said all governments needed to protect the rule of law and honor citizens' rights to dignity, but she did not address Chen's situation directly.
Activists have been calling on the U.S. to stay by Chen's side to ensure Chinese authorities do not harm him or his family.
What was said to be a transcript of phone conversations Chen had with his friend and former lawyer, Teng Biao, showed the dissident grew increasingly worried Wednesday night when he and his family were left alone in their hospital room.
U.S. Embassy workers "said they would accompany me all the way, but now they've all gone. It's just me at the hospital now," Chen told Teng, who released the transcripts online.
By Thursday morning, officials from the embassy, including Robert Wang, deputy chief of mission, returned to Chaoyang Beijing Hospital. Wang, who declined to comment, stood outside a hospital entrance surrounded by plainclothes Chinese police officers videotaping anyone who approached him.
In a sign that China was already ignoring American pleas to leave Chen's supporters alone, several activists reported that they were being confined at home and instructed not to talk to members of the media.
"My days of house arrest have started," tweeted Zeng Jinyan, a close friend who was first to raise the possibility Chen was coerced into leaving U.S. protection.
Zeng and Teng indicated they were being forbidden by police to speak to journalists.
Other activists reported that He Peirong, a longtime supporter who drove Chen to Beijing from Shandong, had been released from police custody but was being confined by authorities inside her home in Nanjing.
"If all these people are endangered, then it clearly proves there's no law in China,” said Liu Weiguo, an attorney representing Chen's nephew, who has been missing since authorities raided his home in search of his uncle.
-- David Pierson
Photo: Du Yanlin, wearing sunglasses to show solidarity for blind activist Chen Guangcheng, is filmed by police outside the hospital in Beijing where Chen is staying. Credit: Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty Images