BEIJING – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told China today that it must protect human rights, in remarks that rejected Beijing’s criticism of the U.S. for getting involved in the case of a blind dissident whose fate overshadowed the opening of annual talks between the powerful countries.
Clinton said at the opening of the talks on foreign policy and economic issues that the U.S. believes “all governments have to answer our citizens’ aspirations for dignity and the rule of law and that no nation can or should deny those rights.”
Her comments came as the dissident, Chen Guangcheng, pleaded for more help from Washington. The blind, self-taught lawyer took refuge in the U.S. Embassy after escaping house arrest, but left Wednesday to get treatment for a leg injury at a Beijing hospital.
He initially said he had been assured that he would be safe in China, but hours later he said he fears for his family’s safety unless they are all spirited abroad. He also claimed U.S. officials abandoned him at the hospital, which they denied.
China already demanded an apology from the U.S. even before Chen balked at a deal in which he would remain in his homeland. Now that he wants to leave, the case is looming over talks in which Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are to discuss foreign policy and economic issues with their Chinese counterparts.
China’s President Hu Jintao said at the opening of the talks that China and the United States “must know how to respect each other” even if they disagree.
“Given our different national conditions, it is impossible for both China and the United States to see eye to eye on every issue,” he said in the only part of the opening ceremony that was broadcast on state television. “We should properly manage the differences by improving mutual understanding so these differences will not undermine the larger interests of China-U.S. relations.”
Neither Hu nor Clinton specifically mentioned Chen, who had spent six days holed up in the U.S. Embassy as senior officials in Beijing and Washington tussled over his fate. He remained at the hospital today, guarded by a handful of uniformed police and about 10 plainclothes officers.
A shaken Chen told the Associated Press from his hospital room Wednesday that Chinese authorities had warned he would lose his opportunity to be reunited with his family if he stayed longer in the embassy.
U.S. officials verified that account. But they adamantly denied his contention that one American diplomat had warned him of a threat from the Chinese that his wife would be beaten to death if he did not get out of the embassy.
“I think we’d like to rest in a place outside of China,” Chen told the AP, appealing again for help from Washington. “Help my family and me leave safely.”
Only hours earlier, U.S. officials said they had extracted from the Chinese government a promise that Chen would join his family and be allowed to start a new life in a university town in China, safe from the rural authorities who had abusively held him in prison and house arrest for nearly seven years.