BEIJING — Blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. Embassy in Beijing Wednesday of his own volition, U.S. and Chinese officials said, but reports surfaced almost immediately that the dissident was coerced by threats against his family and that he has reiterated his desire to leave China.
A close friend of Chen, Beijing activist Zeng Jinyan, also said the deal with U.S. officials to keep the dissident in China was forced on him to avoid harm to his family and supporters.
Zeng said she was told by Chen’s wife that if her husband didn’t leave the embassy, she and her children would be forced to return to their village, where thugs armed with sticks were waiting to beat them to death.
U.S. officials announced hours earlier that they had struck a deal with Chinese authorities that would allow Chen to remain in China and work at a university safe from reprisals for his escape from house arrest and his six-day refuge at the U.S. Embassy.
A State Department spokeswoman in Washington said Chen never sought political asylum in the United States, and he decided to leave the embassy to ensure that he could be with his family.
Zeng — the wife of prominent government critic Hu Jia — wrote several tweets saying Chen agreed to stay in China only because his family was threatened.
Zeng, who confirmed with the Los Angeles Times that her tweets were genuine, said Chen explained in a phone conversation that he wanted to leave the country, but wouldn’t see his family again if he did.
“Guangcheng didn’t want to leave the U.S. Embassy, but he had no choice. If he hadn’t left, Yuan Weijing would have been sent back to Shandong immediately,” Zeng said of Chen’s wife and the province where the family sustained beatings and threats throughout Chen’s 19 months under house arrest.
Zeng said that Chen’s wife pleaded for her help, saying, “Jinyan, I am so scared. … ”
Bob Fu of the Texas-based ChinaAid Association also said he had received reliable reports that Chen’s decision to leave the embassy was done reluctantly because “serious threats to his immediate family members were made by Chinese government.” Fu said the reports show that the United States “has abandoned Mr. Chen.”
Chen fell afoul of Chinese authorities for his criticism of forced abortions and sterilizations committed under China’s strict one-child policy on population control.
He was twice tried on charges seen as politically motivated punishment for his activism. He was sentenced to six years in prison, then confined to his home after his release.