"I didn't have a lot of information," Chen says of his decision to leave embassy
Chen says he feels his life is in danger if he stays in China
China says it will investigate reports of mistreatment of Chen, U.S. official says
The Chinese activist who walked out of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Wednesday after what officials said was a decision he had made on his own said Thursday that he regrets the move and now wants U.S. officials to help get him and his family to the United States.
“I want them to protect human rights through concrete actions,” Chen Guangcheng told CNN from his hospital room in Beijing. “We are in danger. If you can talk to Hillary, I hope she can help my whole family leave China.”
Chen was referring to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived Wednesday for trade talks and found herself in the middle of a diplomatic firestorm.
Last month, the 40-year-old blind, self-taught lawyer escaped house arrest in the eastern China province of Shandong and fled to Beijing, where he took refuge in the embassy for six days but left Wednesday for a hospital.
His presence in the embassy prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity between the United States and China and threatened to overshadow Clinton’s scheduled meetings on trade this week with Chinese leaders.
Chen said he did not fully grasp what he was facing when he agreed to abandon the embassy.
“At the time, I didn’t have a lot of information,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed to call my friends from inside the embassy. I couldn’t keep up with news, so I didn’t know a lot of things that were happening.”
He said Thursday that he felt that his life and that of his wife, Yuan Weijing, would be in danger if he were to remain in the country.
“Anything could happen,” he said.
Chen said he left the embassy only after U.S. officials encouraged him to do so.
“The embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised to have people stay with me at the hospital,” he said. “But this afternoon, as soon as I checked into the hospital room, I noticed they were all gone.”
He said he was “very disappointed” in the U.S. government and felt “a little” that he had been lied to by the embassy.
At the hospital, where he was reunited with his family, he said he learned that his wife had been badly treated after his escape.
“She was tied to a chair by police for two days,” he said. “Then they carried thick sticks to our house, threatening to beat her to death. Now they have moved into the house. They eat at our table and use our stuff. Our house is teeming with security – on the roof and in the yard. They installed seven surveillance cameras inside the house and built electric fences around the yard.”
Chen said he was told that had he not left the embassy, “they would send her back (to the family’s village in Shandong), and people there would beat her.”
He said he also learned that Chinese officials had rounded up some of his supporters after his escape and placed some of them under house detention. He said he was appealing to U.S. President Barack Obama to do more about human rights in China.
Yuan said she does not want to raise her children in China, where she said they would have no future. She said guards at the hospital would not allow her to leave and appealed to Clinton to intervene.
“If we stay here or get sent back to Shandong, our lives would be at stake. Under such circumstances, I hope the U.S. government will protect us and help us leave China based on its values of protecting human rights.”
The situation is testing the Obama administration’s approach to relations with China, straining its commitment to uphold human rights even as it maintains steady ties with Beijing.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell defended U.S. actions. He said Chen was repeatedly asked by U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke whether he was ready to leave the embassy voluntarily, and each time he said, “Let’s do it. Let’s go.”
“We’re going to be putting some pictures out, and I think what you’re going to see from these is, he is excited. He’s happy. I think he’s anticipating the struggles ahead, but let me say there was a lot of hugging and really quite genuine warmth between him and us,” Campbell said.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Chen never spoke with any U.S. official about physical or legal threats to his wife and children. “U.S. interlocutors did make clear that if Chen elected to stay in the embassy, Chinese officials had indicated to us that his family would be returned to Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for reunification.”
She added that, during his days in the embassy, Chen never sought political asylum in the United States.
“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. All our diplomacy was directed at putting him in the best possible position to achieve his objectives.”
A senior State Department official said Chen entered the embassy on April 26, requesting medical treatment for a foot injury he had suffered while climbing over one of the eight walls he scaled during his flight from his home village. “U.S. medical personnel conducted a series of medical tests and administered appropriate treatment while he was there,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.
U.S. officials also said Wednesday that it was Chen who decided to go to the hospital in Beijing for treatment.
“He did so on the basis of a number of understandings. China acknowledged that Mr. Chen will be treated humanely while he remains in China,” a senior U.S. official said.
Chen, who was reunited with his wife and two children at the hospital, is to have access to U.S. doctors and other visitors, the official said.
“They will remain together with him as a family,” the official said. “He had not seen his son in a few years, and his wife had not seen him either, so this was a family reunification after a long and difficult separation.”
Clinton was the first person to call Chen after he left the embassy, a U.S. official said. Chen said to Clinton, in broken English, “I want to kiss you,” the official said.
Clinton said she was pleased that U.S. officials “were able to facilitate” Chen’s “stay and departure from the U.S. Embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values.”
“I was glad to have the chance to speak with him today and to congratulate him on being reunited with his wife and children,” she said in a written statement.
On Thursday, in a speech to Chinese officials, she referred to human rights without mentioning Chen. “Now, of course, as part of our dialogue, the United States raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms because we believe that all governments do have to answer to citizens’ aspirations for dignity and the rule of law and that no nation can or should deny those rights,” she said.
Douglas Paal, a China analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Chen’s reversal may be a way to put Beijing on notice “that the whole world is watching you, and you’d better follow through on your promise and more.”
“The Chinese are now under an open and transparent obligation to provide this guy the security and assurances they told the Americans they would. Otherwise, their relations with the United States will take a sharp downturn,” said Paal, a former State Department and CIA official.
Last month, Chen evaded guards who had kept him under house arrest for more than 18 months in Shandong.
He was confined to his home after serving four years in prison, apparently over his legal advocacy for what he called victims of abusive practices such as forced abortions and sterilizations by China’s family planning officials.
The activist made his way to Beijing on April 22, moving between safe houses before seeking refuge in the U.S. Embassy. Friends and fellow activists had raised concerns about his health.
Chinese officials had guaranteed that no further legal issues will be directed at Chen and that reports of mistreatment against him will be investigated, a U.S. official said Wednesday, before Chen’s change of heart.
He had said he wanted to stay in China and so was to have been moved to a “safe environment” away from the province where he was kept under house arrest, another U.S. official said.
Chen “may attend a university to pursue a course of study,” the official said.
“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. Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task,” Clinton said.
“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.”
The State Department’s Nuland said U.S. officials didn’t speak to Chen “about physical or legal threats to his wife and children,” and Chinese officials didn’t “make any such threats to us.”
“U.S. interlocutors did make clear that if Chen elected to stay in the embassy, Chinese officials had indicated to us that his family would be returned to Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for reunification,” she said.
China demanded an apology from the United States for its handling of the situation.
Liu Weimin, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, in comments reported by the state-run news agency Xinhua, called the U.S. activity “interference in Chinese domestic affairs, and this is totally unacceptable to China.” He said Chen had left the embassy “of his own volition.”
CNN’s Jaime FlorCruz, Stan Grant and Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.