Chen Guangcheng left US embassy 'after family threats'

Chen Guangcheng, speaking in hospital, said he feared for his family's safety

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Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng says he gave up his refuge in the US embassy in Beijing after Chinese authorities made threats to family members.

He initially appeared to accept assurances of a safe future with his family, but later said he feared for them and now wanted to leave China.

The US said it had no knowledge of Chinese threats and that Mr Chen had at no point asked for asylum.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Beijing for high-level talks.

Mr Chen had been at the US embassy for a week after escaping from house arrest in his home village in Shandong province.

The blind activist's case has threatened to overshadow the bilateral talks, which are due to focus on issues like Syria and trade.

Earlier Mr Chen's lawyer said the activist was "happy" after receiving "clear assurances" from Beijing.

But Associated Press quoted Mr Chen, 40, as saying he had been told by US officials of the threat from the Chinese authorities and "got the feeling that the US government and the embassy was quite supportive of me leaving as well".

US officials had accompanied Mr Chen to a Beijing hospital, where he was reunited with his wife and two children.

US state department spokesperson Victoria Nuland later said: "At no time did any US officials speak to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children. Nor did Chinese officials make any such threats to us."

Analysis

It is difficult to see how Mr Chen has been given guarantees that will allow him to carry on his activism, inside China, if that is the life he chooses to pursue.

And the US will have limited scope to ensure China abides by any promises it has made.

This incident still has the potential to turn into a crisis and the timing could not have been worse.

China and the US are about to start the fourth round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue on Thursday.

As far as the Americans are concerned, they seem convinced they have negotiated a deal that is good for them and Mr Chen.

But the ruling communist party tolerates little dissent. Activists are harassed, kept quiet and occasionally sent to prison.

But she added: "Chinese officials had indicated to us that his family would be returned to Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for reunification."

CNN said it had spoken to Mr Chen and he said he felt let down by the US and wanted to leave China with his family as soon as possible.

"I would like to say to President Obama - please do everything you can to get our family out," CNN quoted him as saying.

'Please help me'

The BBC's Michael Bristow in Beijing says both US and Chinese officials initially said Mr Chen had left the embassy of his own volition, but a more complicated story soon began to emerge.

A close friend of Mr Chen, Zeng Jinyan, herself an activist in Beijing, told the BBC she had spoken to Mr Chen and confirmed he had opted to stay in China to protect his family.

Ms Zeng said that Mr Chen "had no choice" because "thugs with sticks" were waiting for him and his family in their home village in Shandong.

She said: "It's impossible, he couldn't do anything. He said, 'please help me'."

Bob Fu, of Texas-based rights advocacy group ChinaAid, said reliable sources had also told it that Mr Chen had left the embassy because serious threats to his immediate family members were made by the Chinese government.

"We are deeply concerned about this sad development if the report about Chen's involuntary departure is true," Mr Fu said.

Hillary Clinton had earlier issued a statement saying: "I am pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng's stay and departure from the US embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values.

"Mr Chen has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment," she said.

"Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task. The United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr Chen and his family in the days, weeks, and years ahead."

Ms Nuland later said that "at no point during his time in the embassy did Chen ever request political asylum in the US. 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".

Chen Guangcheng

Chen Guangcheng (file photo 2006)
  • Born 12 Nov 1971
  • Nicknamed the 'Barefoot Lawyer'
  • Went blind as a child
  • Campaigned for women forced to have abortions or sterilisation under China's one child per family policy
  • Jailed for four years in 2006 for disrupting traffic and damaging property
  • Released from jail in 2010 placed under house arrest
  • Daughter barred from school during much of 2011, reports say
  • Escapes house arrest, April 2012

But AP quoted Mr Chen as appealing to the US to "help my family and me leave [China] safely".

US-based China activist Yaxue Cao told the BBC she was angry at the US for reaching a deal with China.

She said: "If past indications are anything to go by, can you for a minute think China will guarantee Chen Guangcheng's safety? Is the state department kidding?"

'Free citizen'

Mr Chen had been driven from the US embassy to a VIP section of Chaoyang Hospital for a check-up.

He was accompanied by US officials, but Mr Chen later told Britain's Channel 4 News: "Nobody from the [US] Embassy is here. I don't understand why. They promised to be here."

Some 20 police officers ordered journalists to leave the hospital and detained one protester carrying a banner reading "Free Guangcheng. Democracy for China", Agence France-Presse news agency reported.

Earlier, Mr Chen's lawyer, Li Jinsong, said he had spoken to his client on the phone. He said Mr Chen was "very happy and wants to hug all his friends".

Mr Li said the dissident had told him he now had "true freedom", his rights were now protected by the national law and he was "a free citizen".

The affair has strained US-China relations at a delicate time.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said: "What the US needs to do is to stop misleading the public and stop making every excuse to shift responsibility and conceal its own wrongdoing."

Mr Liu earlier said China was "strongly dissatisfied" and that the US should apologise.

Mr Chen had planned his escape for months, scaling the wall the authorities had built around his house and then being driven hundreds of miles to Beijing, where activists say he stayed in safe houses before fleeing to the embassy.

Several people involved in Mr Chen's escape have been detained or have disappeared in recent days.

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