Chinese activist now wants to leave China, US under pressure to intervene

The Chinese activist at the center of an international tug-of-war now wants to flee China with his family, a U.S. official confirmed, with the blind dissident telling one reporter he wants to "leave for the U.S. on Hillary Clinton's plane."

The latest twist in an increasingly complex diplomatic stand-off comes as a prominent human rights advocate on Capitol Hill accuses the Obama administration of trying to sweep away the controversy to make way for diplomatic photo-ops at a round of Beijing meetings. The opening day of those talks, which include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was Thursday.

"Unfortunately, having this summit and trying to get this off the table in time for the happy pictures and the photo-ops with the summit may have driven this in a way that led to a poor outcome," Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., told "How are they going to guarantee his safety?"

The situation is developing by the hour, though, and U.S. officials are continuing to reach out to Chen Guangcheng.

The blind activist first escaped house arrest and fled to the U.S. Embassy in China last week, touching off the diplomatic dispute. He finally left the embassy Wednesday to seek medical care and visit his family at a local hospital -- a decision U.S. officials described as his own. Yet despite initial U.S. claims that the Beijing government offered assurances to Chen and that Chen wanted to stay in China with his family, those claims are being challenged.

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    Chen told reporters Wednesday that the Chinese, via U.S. intermediaries, had threatened to send his family back to their home province where they were persecuted if he did not leave the embassy -- he said one U.S. official passed on a message that his wife would be killed, though the U.S. State Department adamantly denies the claim. Chen is now saying he wants to leave China -- he told The Daily Beast he wants to fly out with Clinton.

    A U.S. spokeswoman on Thursday confirmed that Chen wants to leave with his family. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that U.S. officials had spoken twice Thursday with Chen and also with his wife and "they as a family have had a change of heart about whether they want to stay in China."

    Nuland and other officials would not discuss the possibility of Chen being granted U.S. asylum but said earlier that "we will do what we can to help him achieve" what he wants.

    U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke also told reporters that Chen had been "very clear from the very, very beginning that he wanted to stay in China."

    "We asked him, did you want to go to the United States, and he said no; maybe someday to study, but his immediate goal was to stay in China and to help with the cause," Locke said.

    The ambassador said Chen was "never pressured to leave" the embassy and had never asked for asylum in the U.S.

    But Smith said the U.S. should "without a doubt" revisit his case and consider granting him asylum, chiding the administration for its handling of the affair.

    "There is no safe place in China if you're a dissident. It doesn't exist. It's an oxymoron," Smith said. "I think we missed an opportunity to press for asylum."

    Chen reportedly has tried to reach out to Smith, asking that a message be sent to him to "help my family and I leave safely."

    Smith, in an interview with, said he has not yet gotten in touch with Chen. He said he called the U.S. Embassy in China on Tuesday night to try to reach him and "stood by the phone all night," to no avail. He said he never got a call back but is "responding as if I did."

    Smith has tried to visit Chen in China before, but said the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., had turned him down for a visa.

    Other Republican lawmakers also put added pressure on the Obama administration in the wake of Chen's published comments.

    "Having handed Chen Guangcheng back over to the Chinese government, the Obama administration is responsible for ensuring his safety," House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement. "While our economic relationship with China is important and vital to the future of people in both countries, the United States has an obligation to use its engagement with China to press for reforms in China's human rights practices, particularly with respect to the reprehensible 'one-child' policy."

    Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that "if American does not speak up for Mr. Chen, who will?"'s Judson Berger and The Associated Press contributed to this report.