BEIJING—US officials searched for a solution on Friday after a blind activist they had sheltered reversed course and asked to leave China with his family, deepening a diplomatic standoff while US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is in Beijing.
The demand by Chen Guangcheng to leave China abandons an arduously negotiated agreement, and reaching a new one will be even more challenging, if not impossible, because he left the protection of the US Embassy on Wednesday. He is now in a Beijing hospital, ringed by Chinese police.
US officials said they would speak with Chen and his wife again on Friday, 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 on Thursday, when they spoke to him by telephone.
Clinton, in Beijing for previously set annual talks on global political and economic hotspots, was expected to have raised Chen’s case when she met President Hu Jintao on Friday, although neither mentioned Chen in remarks at the start of the meeting when media were present.
“We have developed a very open and honest relationship where we can discuss our differences and we remain committed to bridging those differences whenever and wherever possible,” Clinton said.
Clinton also met Premier Wen Jiabao and was to hold a news conference later on Friday.
Chen last week escaped his rural home where local officials had kept him under house arrest for years. He made it to the US Embassy, where he stayed for six days before the US 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.
He has told friends and foreign media he felt scared and wanted to go abroad. He even used his cell phone to call in Thursday to a congressional hearing in Washington, telling lawmakers he wanted to meet Clinton. “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 US officials.
Taken aback at Chen’s change of heart, US 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, or whether the Chinese would be willing to renegotiate a deal that both sides thought had been settled a day earlier.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner confirmed US officials weren’t able to see Chen in person Thursday but spoke twice with him by telephone, and once with his wife, Yuan Weijing, outside the hospital.
“It’s our desire to meet with him tomorrow or in the coming days,” Toner said. “But I can’t speak to whether we’ll have access to him. I just don’t know.”
Earlier, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said US officials would continue to work with Chen and his wife to try to find a satisfactory new solution. “We need to consult with them further to get a better sense of what they want to do and consider their options,” Nuland said.
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.”
He also expressed fears for the lives of his other family members, including his mother and brothers, and voiced concern that people in his home village were suffering retribution for helping him.
“I want to thank all of you for all your care and all your love,” he concluded, speaking in Chinese that was translated into English by a rights activist at the hearing.
A self-taught lawyer, the 40-year-old Chen became an international human rights figure and inspiration to many ordinary Chinese after running afoul of local government officials for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations carried out as part of China’s one-child policy.
Until his escape last week, his nearly seven years in prison and abusive house arrest with his wife, six-year-old daughter and mother fueled outrage and added to his stature—and in turn upped the stakes for Washington in helping him.
Chen said throughout his stay at the US Embassy that his desire was to remain in China with his family, and US diplomats said that was their goal in negotiations with Chinese officials.
After several days of talks, US officials said they extracted a guarantee that Chen would be relocated outside his home province to a university town where he could formally study law. US officials said they would periodically monitor his situation, though they did not specify how.
But hours after a gleeful Chen left the US compound, he changed his mind, driven in part by his wife’s tales of abuse and retribution in the days after Chen managed to escape from his rural farmhouse.
Under the deal that brought him out of the embassy, the family was reunited and taken to Chaoyang Hospital, where Chen was treated for a foot injured in his escape. There, Chen’s wife told him what had happened after local officials discovered he was gone.
She “told him his family was tied to chairs and interrogated by police, and that his nephew attacked somebody and is on the run outside and might be in life-threatening dangers,” said Li Jinsong, Chen’s lawyer. “These things undoubtedly have left an impact on him.”
Chen also felt abandoned by the US, finding no embassy staff at the hospital to assure his protection.
On Thursday, Chen sent a message through a friend clarifying that he does not seek asylum from the US but wants to travel or study in the US temporarily. He mentioned he was considering an invitation to visit New York University.
In the Chinese language statement released via email and on the Internet, Chen said he was grateful to Clinton and other US officials and did not feel pressured or forced to leave the US Embassy and did so of his own free will.
An activist lawyer and friend of Chen’s, Jiang Tianyong, was taken away and beaten by state security agents when he tried to visit Chen at the hospital on Thursday evening, causing him hearing loss in one ear, Jiang’s wife said.
Another activist, Zeng Jinyan, who tweeted her conversation with Chen late Wednesday, said in postings Thursday that state security agents told her not to discuss the case anymore.
The unraveling of the deal that set Chen free puts Washington and Beijing at odds at a time both governments are trying to contain their ever-sharper jostling for influence around the world.
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. China’s authoritarian leadership is also in the midst of a once-a-decade transition to younger leaders in which taking a hard line against dissent and foreign meddling is politically safe.
Among the issues to be resolved is whether China will negotiate over its citizens, and if it lets the Chens go, whether they will be allowed to return.
With Chen no longer at the embassy, Washington seemed to have little sway. China’s authoritarian government dislikes human rights negotiations in general, seeing its treatment of its citizens as a domestic affair. In Chen’s case, the Foreign Ministry has criticized the US for bringing a Chinese citizen into the embassy and harboring him.