BEIJING – U.S. officials scrambled to come up with options today after a blind activist reversed course and asked to leave China with his family, abandoning an arduously negotiated agreement after he left the protection of the U.S. Embassy for a Beijing hospital ringed by Chinese police.
Alone with his wife and children, Chen Guangcheng periodically switched on a cellphone Thursday to tell friends and foreign media he felt scared and wanted to go abroad, and that he had not seen U.S. officials in more than a day.
He even called in to a congressional hearing in Washington, telling lawmakers he wanted to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is in Beijing. “I hope I can get more help from her,” Chen said.
Chen’s high-profile effort to keep his case in the public eye increased pressure on Washington and embarrassed Beijing as it hosted Clinton and other U.S. officials for annual talks on global political and economic hot spots.
U.S. officials said they would speak with Chen and his wife again today, then approach the Chinese with possible options. They did not say what those options could be, or if they expected to visit Chen in person. They were unable to do so Thursday when they spoke to him by telephone.
Clinton, who will meet with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, is expected to raise Chen’s case.
Chen last week escaped his rural home, where local officials had kept him under house arrest for years. He made it to the U.S. Embassy, where he stayed for six days before the U.S. and China reached a deal that would allow him to stay in China, as he had requested. But hours after leaving the embassy Wednesday he said he and his family would not be safe unless they left the country.
Taken aback at Chen’s change of heart, U.S. diplomats spent much of Thursday trying to confirm the family wanted to leave, and eventually said they would try to help him. Still, it remained unclear how they might do so now that he has left the embassy.
Republican Rep. Frank Wolf, a fierce Beijing critic, told the congressional hearing held to discuss Chen’s case that the Obama administration’s handling of it was “naive,” adding that “a purported diplomatic triumph evolved into a diplomatic fiasco.”
In a phone call from his hospital room in Beijing, Chen told lawmakers: “I want to meet with Secretary Clinton. … I want to thank her face to face.”
On Thursday, Chen sent a message through a friend clarifying that he does not seek asylum from the U.S. but wants to travel or study in the U.S. temporarily. He mentioned he was considering an invitation to visit New York University.
Having involved itself in the fate of an activist of Chen’s stature, the Obama administration can ill afford to abandon him and risk election-year criticism.