NEW: Hillary Clinton says the U.S. government looks forward to welcoming the activist
Chen Guangcheng is in a Beijing hospital after escaping house arrest
Chen calls Chinese state media's criticism of him as "utter nonsense"
He says he is worried about the safety of some of his family members
Reiterating his deep concern about the safety of members of his family, the Chinese activist at the center of a recent diplomatic storm on Tuesday dismissed personal attacks against him in state media as “utter nonsense.”
“It’s painting black as white,” Chen Guangcheng told CNN by phone from his hospital bed in Beijing, where he is undergoing medical examinations and treatment after escaping more than 18 months of house arrest in eastern China some two weeks ago.
The prominent human rights activist, who is blind, created an international crisis when he took refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He left the embassy after six days for a local hospital but has since made several pleas to be allowed to leave China, including a call to a U.S. congressional hearing in Washington.
Chen said Tuesday that he has daily phone conversations with U.S. embassy officials about his condition – including with Ambassador Gary Locke on Monday – though the Americans are still barred from regularly entering his heavily guarded hospital building.
He said he has met four times with representatives of China’s central government, who pledged to help him obtain a passport and look into the allegations of the brutal treatment that he and his family say they suffered at the hands of officials in Shandong province.
The Chinese authorities said Friday that Chen could apply to study abroad, offering a potential solution to the issue of his future status. New York University has invited Chen to be a visiting scholar, working with its law programs.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CNN on Tuesday that the two governments were processing the paperwork necessary to realize the objective.
“We’re looking forward to welcoming him and seeing him have the chance to pursue the studies that he has said he is interested in doing,” Clinton said in an interview in New Delhi.
Chen said he was worried about his nephew Chen Kegui, who was taken into custody for attacking local officials with a knife after news of the activist’s escape emerged. Chen said the officials had broken into his nephew’s house in the middle of the night without warning.
The authorities in Linyi, the city that oversees Chen’s village, had issued a statement accusing Chen Kegui of injuring government officials with a knife and saying he would be dealt with according to the law. They declined to comment on the matter Tuesday.
“It’s shameless of them to arrest him,” Chen said. “He only acted in self-defense.”
Despite the Chinese government’s indications that it may allow Chen to leave the country to study, state-controlled media and pro-government commentators have begun to publish disparaging comments about him, adding uncertainty about Beijing’s stance toward him.
The English edition of the Communist Party-affiliated newspaper Global Times ran a critical op-ed article Monday by Sima Pingbang that talked of “misbehavior” by Chen that led to his “legally justifiable sentence.”
Chen was sentenced in 2006 to four years and three months in prison for “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic” – charges that his supporters maintain were trumped up by the authorities to punish his legal advocacy for victims of what he called abusive family-planning policies, including forced abortions and sterilization.
Sima, described by the Global Times as a “blogger and grass-roots intellectual,” claimed that Chen had monopolized his village’s water supply to extort high fees and, when others questioned his actions, he sent family members to attack local officials and block public roads.
In the article, Sima said he had visited Chen and his wife in December where he became annoyed by the activist’s insistence on involving the United Nations in an investigation of his grievances.
In a longer Chinese version he posted on his blog, Sima labeled Chen a “Chinese traitor” and said fellow villagers considered Chen an “American agent.”
Chen said Tuesday that local officials came up with the story of the water supply issue years ago to try to discredit him.
He said the British government had funded the construction of a deep well to help improve villagers’ access to clean water. The project, he said, was well known to be the result of his fight against a polluting local paper mill.
Although he didn’t remember Sima by name, Chen said he did recall local officials bringing more than a dozen people to his home unannounced in December.
“Things became strange before their visit,” he said. “They started painting our exterior walls and dismantling the surveillance cameras around the house.” The number of guards around his home seemed to decrease, he added.
Sensing a possible propaganda ploy by the authorities, Chen said he covered his trademark sunglasses with a paper cutout inscribed with slogans that accused local officials of illegal house arrest and brutality against his family.
He said the people spent an hour in his house, taking pictures and recording videos. None of the images have surfaced so far.
Some of the visitors tried to sound sympathetic, while others lectured him on the importance of patriotism, Chen said, but he chose to direct their attention to the dire conditions he and his family had to live in.
He recalled telling the group that he had asked for U.N. intervention in his case because the the Chinese authorities “can’t be both players and referees.”
Chen said he also wondered aloud how the group was permitted to see him while many supporters and journalists – including CNN and the actor Christian Bale – had been turned back, often aggressively, by plainclothes guards at checkpoints leading to his house.
“They said they just contacted the local government, and I scoffed,” he said.
“If other villagers really disliked me so much,” he asked, referring to Sima’s assertion of his bad reputation among locals. “Why didn’t they just let journalists in to hear people out?”
CNN’s Jill Dougherty contributed to this report from New Delhi.