The Republican congressman to whom Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng has apparently appealed for help is accusing the Obama administration of trying to sweep his concerns “off the table” to make way for “happy” diplomatic photo-ops at a round of Beijing meetings.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., in an interview with FoxNews.com, said he has not yet gotten in touch with Chen, who reportedly has asked for Smith’s help in leaving China. But he said the U.S. should “without a doubt” revisit his case and consider granting him asylum, as conflicting reports emerge about the safety of him and his family.
“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 escaped house arrest and sought shelter in the U.S. Embassy last week. He was shuttled out of the embassy Wednesday to seek medical care at a hospital for a foot injury. At the time, U.S. officials said Chen was offered assurances by the Chinese government and gave the impression that the diplomatic standoff was being, or had been, resolved.
But hours later, Chen told an Associated Press reporter that U.S. officials passed on a message from the Chinese government that his family would be sent back to their home province, where they had been persecuted, if he didn’t leave the embassy. Further, he reportedly said one U.S. official claimed his wife would be beaten to death if he didn’t leave.
The State Department, while acknowledging that Chen might have been sent back home if he hadn’t left, adamantly denied the death threat.
But Smith said Chen’s supposed account was awfully specific. At the least, he said the U.S. should be scrambling to figure out if he in fact wants to leave China out of fear for the safety of him and his family – as he suggested to the AP. He also reportedly had asked that a message be sent to Smith to “help my family and I leave safely.”
Smith said he’s trying. 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.”
Thursday, a U.S. spokeswoman said Chen now does want to leave China with his family.
Smith expressed concern that the Obama administration is moving to dispose of the controversy so Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner can press forward with diplomatic talks with the Chinese while visiting the country this week.
“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,” Smith told FoxNews.com. “How are they going to guarantee his safety?”
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?”
But the State Department 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."
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.