Questions are swirling about a Chinese activist’s claim that a U.S. official told him Chinese authorities had threatened to kill his wife if he did not leave the American Embassy where he had sought sanctuary – as the State Department adamantly denied having ever discussed such a threat with him.
“At no time did any U.S. official speak to (Chen Guangcheng) about physical or legal threats to his wife and children," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. "Nor did Chinese officials make any such threats to us."
The statement came after Chen reportedly claimed a U.S. official discussed with him the alleged threat from the Chinese government. The claim directly challenges the narrative that has been coming from American officials, who have described Chen's decision as his own -- and tried to move on from the incident ahead of key talks between U.S. and Chinese officials.
U.S. officials have said Chen received assurances from Beijing, before he decided to leave the U.S. Embassy Wednesday for medical treatment at a hospital. Chen fled to the embassy nearly a week ago after escaping house arrest.
But in an interview with The Associated Press, Chen reportedly said U.S. officials told him Chinese authorities would send his family back home if he stayed inside. He added that, at one point, the U.S. officials told him his wife would be beaten to death.
"They said if I don't leave they would take my children and family back to Shandong," Chen told The Associated Press. He said he heard the death threat from an American official whom he could not identify.
Chen, 40, said he never asked to leave China and that U.S. officials told him they would accompany him out of the embassy. But after he got to his room in Chaoyang Hospital with his family, he told the AP no U.S. officials stayed behind and that the family is now scared and wants to leave the country.
"I think we'd like to rest in a place outside of China," Chen told the AP, appealing again for help in Washington. "Help my family and me leave safely."
One senior U.S. official denied that the administration had passed on any threat of violence to the family, but told the AP that Chen was told if he stayed in the embassy indefinitely, his family would be returned to their home province. Nuland also said Beijing had "indicated" the family could be returned.
That aligns with a string of tweets sent out Wednesday by Chinese activist Zeng Jinyan.
Zeng, claiming to have spoken with Chen, tweeted that he was "reluctant" to leave the U.S. Embassy but had no choice -- because his wife would have otherwise been sent back to their home province where they had been persecuted.
Potentially in response to those claims, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell put out a statement Wednesday saying: "Chen made the decision to leave the Embassy after he knew his family was safe and at the hospital waiting for him, and after twice being asked by Ambassador (Gary) Locke if he [was] ready to go. ... We were all there as witnesses to his decision."
Chen's escape from illegal house arrest in eastern China and his flight into the protection of U.S. diplomats in Beijing last week had created a delicate diplomatic crisis for Washington and Beijing. It also threatened to derail annual U.S.-China strategic talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton starting Thursday.
Under the agreement that ended the fraught, behind-the-scenes standoff, U.S. officials said China agreed to let Chen and his family be relocated to a safe place in China where he could study at university, and that his treatment by local officials would be investigated.
Clinton, in a written statement, said she was "pleased" that the United States was able to arrange for activist Chen's "stay and departure from the U.S. Embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values."
At the same time, the Chinese Foreign Ministry demanded a U.S. apology for the intervention -- calling on the United States to investigate how Chen got into the embassy and hold those responsible accountable.
"What the U.S. side has done has interfered in the domestic affairs of China, and the Chinese side will never accept it," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told China's official Xinhua news agency.
But senior U.S. officials who briefed reporters said Wednesday that the U.S. actions were "lawful."
They said Chen entered the embassy under exceptional circumstances last week, requesting medical treatment for a foot injury he sustained after escaping house arrest.
Asked about China's call to apologize, the officials gave no indication that an apology would be forthcoming. "This was an extraordinary case involving exceptional circumstance, we do not anticipate that it will be repeated," an official said.
Clinton further said that Chen has a "number of understandings" with the Chinese government, including a chance to pursue a higher education -- she said that "making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task."
"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," she said.
Clinton again cautioned China to protect human rights Thursday, in remarks that rejected Beijing's criticism of the U.S. for getting involved in the case of a blind dissident whose fate overshadowed the opening of annual talks between the powerful countries.
Clinton said at the opening of the talks on foreign policy and economic issues that the U.S. believes "all governments have to answer our citizens' aspirations for dignity and the rule of law and that no nation can or should deny those rights."
Both sides were eager to resolve Chen's case to clear the way for talks on a U.S.-China agenda crowded with disagreements over trade imbalances, North Korea and Syria. With Chen out of the way, Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts would be able to focus on the original purpose of their two-day talks starting Thursday: building trust between the world's superpower and its up-and-coming rival.
However, leaving Chen in China is risky for President Obama because Washington will now be seen as party to an agreement on Chen's safety that it does not have the power to enforce.
Chen served four years in prison on what supporters said were fabricated charges and was then kept under house arrest with his wife, daughter and mother, with the adults often being roughed up by officials and his daughter searched and harassed.
His dogged pursuit of justice and the mistreatment of him by authorities brought him attention from the U.S. and foreign governments and earned him supporters among many ordinary Chinese.
The prison term and abusive house arrest he suffered had long been seen as the work of vengeful local officials that Beijing was either unable or unwilling to stop.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.