Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese lawyer who escaped house arrest and fled to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, has left the embassy for medical treatment and has been reunited with his family after U.S. negotiators received assurances from the Chinese government that Chen and his family would be safe and that he could continue studying law at a university.
Chen, though, now says he left the embassy due to threats to his family:
But in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from his hospital bed late Wednesday evening, Mr. Chen said American officials told him while he was under American protection that Chinese authorities had threatened to beat his wife to death unless Mr. Chen left the American embassy, and that Mr. Chen therefore left under coercion.
U.S. officials deny this and say that, instead, his wife would be sent back to Shandong, their hometown, by the Chinese government (and no one could offer her protection there) unless Chen left the embassy to see her. That may well be the case, but U.S. officials seem to be intentionally clouding the issue. Perhaps Chinese officials never explicitly threatened to beat his wife to death, but that doesn’t matter—sending her back to Shandong is threat enough, because once there, she will be under control of local police—the same local police which placed Chen, his wife and daughter under house arrest and beat him. Threatening to send her back with no protection is little different than explicitly threatening to beat her to death.
Chen has also now stated that he regrets losing American protection and now wants to leave China for safety abroad. Chen’s reversal seems contradictory, though, because when he arrived at the U.S. embassy last week, he was said to not want asylum, but rather assurances from the Chinese government of his safety and the safety of his family, which he has received. Moreover, while leaving the embassy for the hospital, Chen reportedly told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “I would like to kiss you,” apparently in reference to her advocacy on his behalf and on the behalf of other human rights activists. Perhaps he simply wanted to thank her for her work, despite the circumstances of his leaving the embassy. That’s possible, but it seems to be a strange comment to make while leaving the embassy’s protection under duress.
Or perhaps Chen was threatened later, after arriving at the hospital and after U.S. officials had left. That seems plausible and would fit with the Chinese government’s interests: make promises for his safety and future so he’ll leave the embassy, and once he’s outside U.S. protection, make threats so he’ll shut up and the problem can go away. Of course, Chen kept talking, and did so to international media, no less, so who knows.
This story has taken a very strange turn, because Chen left the embassy so abruptly, his desires have apparently flipped and now U.S. officials are disputing his account of events. I hope the U.S. acted in good faith here, and I hope that if Chen and his family are now in danger, or will be in the future, the U.S. advocates on his behalf. As the days and weeks pass, media interest in this story will pass as well, and at that point the Chinese government could have the upper hand. And it is at that point they could place him under house arrest again, or some other kind of scheme to prevent him from making trouble. We can’t let that happen.