BEIJING – A blind Chinese legal activist who was at the center of a diplomatic tussle between Washington and Beijing left the U.S. Embassy on Wednesday to receive medical care in Beijing and be reunited with this family.
Chen Guangcheng's departure from the embassy came shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Beijing for two days of annual strategic talks that are being overshadowed by the self-taught lawyer's fate. There was no immediate indication of whether Chen would remain in China with his family after receiving medical care.
On his way to the Chaoyang Hospital accompanied by the U.S. ambassador. Chen called his lawyer, Li Jinsong, who said Chen told him: "'I'm free. I've received clear assurances."'
Though Li said Chen did not elaborate, the activist had been seeking guarantees of his and his family's safety.
"Chen Guangcheng has arrived at a medical facility in Beijing where he will receive medical treatment and be reunited with his family," said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. The official did not give additional details on Chen's whereabouts or condition.
The Chinese government's news service, Xinhua, reported that Chen left the U.S. Embassy "of his own volition" after staying there for six days.
Xinhua, in the brief English-language report, said that the Chinese Foreign Ministry has also demanded the U.S. "apologize for a Chinese citizen's entering" the embassy.
The statements were the first official comments by either government on Chen's case since his supporters said last Friday that he had escaped 20 months of house arrest by local authorities at his village in Shandong province, and traveled to Beijing where he went into U.S. government protection.
Chen ran afoul of the local government officials for exposing forced abortions and other abuses, and 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.
His flight into U.S. hands gave Washington and Beijing a delicate human rights crisis at a time when they are trying to shore up shaky relations to deal with the unsteady global economy and trouble-spots from Iran and Syria to North Korea.
Clinton's arrival earlier Wednesday upped the stakes for a resolution. Annual talks led by Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts open Thursday and are supposed to focus on trade tensions and security issues.
Negotiations over Chen's fate likely considered options including him going to the U.S. or keeping him in China.
In a video statement he recorded while in hiding last week, Chen demanded that the Chinese government guarantee his family's safety. He told fellow activists that his preferred option was to stay in China and continue his legal advocacy as long as his family is safe.
Bob Fu of the Texas-based ChinaAid said earlier Wednesday that Chen was conflicted.
Chen "wants to participate for the progress in China in this moment of history, and he is afraid of course he will lose touch and could not return if he chooses to come to the U.S.," said Fu, who was in touch with the activists who spirited Chen to Beijing.
While Chen was in Beijing, his widowed mother and 6-year-old daughter were believed to have remained under house arrest in Dongshigu village in Shandong province. Chen's wife, Yuan Weijing, was taken away from the home Tuesday morning and her current whereabouts are unknown, said Fu.
Other family members remain at risk too. Chen's elder brother, Guangfu, was detained Thursday after officials discovered the activist missing. A nephew, Kegui, was wanted for injuring local officials when he fought back during a raid, though his whereabouts Wednesday were not known, said Lin Weiguo, a lawyer who volunteered to defend him.
Leaving Chen in China could pose risks for President Barack Obama. Washington will be hard-pressed to enforce any guarantees the Chinese leadership might provide on his or his family's safety. Though Chen's mistreatment has largely been seen as the work of vengeful local officials, he slipped away from one house arrest in 2005 only to grabbed in Beijing and sent back.
Mishandling the situation would leave Obama open to attacks from his presumed Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, in what is shaping up to be a tough re-election campaign.
Romney and several Republican lawmakers already have demanded that Obama not back down to Beijing. Handing over Chen without adequate safeguards would also draw intense criticism from the human rights community in the United States, one of Obama's core constituencies.
"The U.S. government has a moral obligation to ensure that Chen Guangcheng, his family and any who aided his Houdini-like escape from house arrest are either granted asylum in the United States or are not mistreated if any of them choose to stay in China," said Frank Jannuzi, head of Amnesty International's Washington office.