Chen affair: How US diplomatic success turned to disaster

A handout photo from US Embassy shows Chen Guangcheng hugging US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell (front) as US Ambassador to China Gary Locke (R) looks on, in Beijing, 2 May 2012 Mr Chen was pictured smiling and hugging US officials outside the US embassy earlier this week

The United States was hailing the developments in the Chen Guangcheng case as a diplomatic triumph - but triumph soon turned to disaster.

When Mr Chen emerged from the US embassy in Beijing he told friends that he was happy to be out. The Americans were also pleased.

But just hours later Mr Chen was saying he wanted the US to get him and his family out of China because he feared for his safety.

The change of heart came when he spoke to his wife and learned of her treatment while he spent six days inside the embassy. He told the BBC that China had also gone back on its pledges.

US officials, and others, had difficulty getting to see Mr Chen on Thursday, just one day after he came out of the embassy.

The activist is now outside the protection of the United States and under virtual detention in Beijing's Chaoyang Hospital.

'Our values'

The 40-year-old blind activist spoke to a number of friends on the telephone when he first came out of the embassy on Wednesday. One of those was the lawyer Li Jinsong.

China's Vice President Xi Jinping (R) meets US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (2nd L), US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner ( 2nd R) at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, Beijing, 3 May 2012 Hillary Clinton arrived in China on Thursday for two days of bilateral talks

"He said that he now has true freedom and real protection," Mr Li told the BBC just after he had spoken to Mr Chen.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also seemed to think a good deal had been struck.

"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," said Mrs Clinton, in a statement released shortly after Mr Chen left the embassy.

On Thursday, the US Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, outlined what that deal entailed.

In a briefing to journalists, he said the Chinese government had promised Cheng Guangcheng he would be allowed to live away from his home in China. The authorities gave him seven cities to choose from, he said.

Ambassador Locke said Mr Chen was also guaranteed a college education paid for by the Chinese government and a promise that officials would listen to his complaints of mistreatment in his home village, Dongshigu.

China then brought Mr Chen's wife and two children to Beijing to show good faith and persuade the activist to leave the US embassy.

"He was excited and eager about leaving when he made his decision," said the US ambassador.

'Electric wires'

But that deal very quickly started to unravel.

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 and placed under house arrest
  • Escaped house arrest in April 2012

In a telephone conversation with the BBC from his hospital bed, Mr Chen said on Thursday that China had gone back on its promises.

He had also found out from his wife how she had been treated while he was in the US embassy. He said she had been tied to a chair for two days by public security personnel.

He said the police had also moved into his village home.

"They just eat and stay in our house, and they plan to build up electric wires around my house. There are people in and outside of our house and on the roof," said a shaken Mr Chen.

He confirmed that he now wants to go to the United States with his family. "I want to leave," he said.

US officials made it clear in briefings on Thursday that this is not what Mr Chen had said previously.

"He made it very, very clear from the very, very beginning that he wanted to stay in China," said Ambassador Locke.

"We asked him, did you want to go to the United States and he said, 'no'."

Visit banned?

Washington is now aware, though, that Mr Chen is changing his mind about where he wants to live - but will that happen?

Cheng Guangcheng told the BBC that he believed US officials were being stopped from meeting him.

"Today I got to know that they were prevented from coming in," he said.

That belief seemed to be supported by comments from US officials.

At a briefing earlier on Thursday in Beijing, a state department official admitted that they had only spoken to the activist on the telephone.

Meanwhile, China is saying little about Chen Guangcheng.

Liu Weimin, a spokesman at a regular press briefing at the foreign ministry, would not be drawn on what deal had been offered to get the activist out of the US embassy.

He said Mr Chen's rights would be protected, but he also said the activist had been a "free citizen" when he was released from prison in 2010.

That is not the case. Mr Chen was a prisoner in his own home.

He is now worried he might face a similar fate if he stays in China.

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