BEIJING — A Chinese activist reversed course Thursday and asked to leave the country with his family, abandoning an arduously negotiated agreement even though he had left the protection of the U.S. Embassy and was in a Beijing hospital ringed by Chinese police.
Bewildered and alone with his wife and children, Chen Guangcheng periodically switched on a cellphone to tell friends and foreign media he felt scared and wanted to go abroad, and that he had not seen U.S. officials in more than a day.
Chen’s high-profile effort to keep his case in the public eye served to increase pressure on Washington and embarrass Beijing as it hosted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other U.S. officials for annual talks on global political and economic hotspots.
Taken aback at Chen’s change of heart, U.S. diplomats spent much of Thursday trying to confirm that the family wanted to leave, and they 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 that U.S. 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.”
Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s handling of the case drew sharp criticism from Mitt Romney. Campaigning in Virginia, the Republican presidential candidate said reports that American officials allowed Chen to leave the embassy represented a “dark day for freedom” and a “day of shame for the Obama administration.”
A self-taught lawyer, Chen, 40, 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, 6-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 six-day stay at the U.S. Embassy that his desire was to remain in China with his family, and U.S. diplomats said that was their goal in negotiations with Chinese officials.
After several days of talks, U.S. 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. U.S. officials said they would periodically monitor his situation.
But hours after Chen left the U.S. 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.