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Chinese activist leaves US embassy

Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng (above) being pushed in a wheelchair in Chaoyang hospital in Beijing yesterday. (AFP photo)

Publication Date : 03-05-2012

 

Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng has left the United States Embassy here amid conflicting accounts of safety assurances and death threats from the Chinese authorities, extending a six-day diplomatic crisis between the world's two most powerful countries.

Chen, 40, who was under illegal house arrest for 19 months before he fled his hometown in eastern Shandong province, did not seek political asylum, according to American officials yesterday.

But he appeared to change his mind after leaving the embassy. A close friend of his said he agreed to stay in China only to protect his family after receiving threats that his wife would be beaten to death if he left.

Zeng Jinyan said Chen told her that he was keen for his whole family to relocate to the US, a claim he confirmed later last night.

But in a deal struck with the Chinese authorities earlier, he will be moved to a safe location in the country and allowed to study law at a university.

Chen's departure from the embassy did not stop Beijing from issuing a stinging rebuke of Washington and demanding an apology from the US for taking a Chinese citizen into its embassy "via abnormal means".

"What the US side has done is an interference in the domestic affairs of China, and the Chinese side will never accept it," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a statement.

Senior US officials, however, indicated that their actions were lawful and that this was an exceptional case. The US said in a statement that Chen sought medical treatment for injuries last Thursday.

The injuries were sustained during his escape from security police in Dongshigu village in Shandong on April 22. Fellow activist He Peirong helped drive him to Beijing. He was arrested late last week and remains uncontactable. Washington has urged Beijing "to take no retribution" against those who helped Chen.

One of China's most prominent activists, Chen had angered the local authorities after helping villagers sue the government over forced sterilisations and abortions as a result of the country's strict one-child policy.

"On humanitarian grounds, we assisted Mr Chen in entering our facilities and allowed him to remain on a temporary basis," said a senior US official.

The Americans said that he never asked to leave the country.

"Mr Chen made clear from the beginning that he wanted to remain in China, and that he wanted his stay in the United States Embassy to be temporary," said the statement.

"He indicated that he placed priority on reunification with his family, and that he sought relocation to a safe environment elsewhere in China from the province that he's been living (in)."

The reunion took place after Chen left the embassy and was accompanied by US Ambassador Gary Locke to the Chaoyang hospital in downtown Beijing. He met his wife and two children at the well-guarded hospital, which journalists were barred from entering.

A lone, young protester put up a sign which read "Free Guangcheng, Democratise China" outside the hospital before he was taken away by police.

The Chen case came at an awkward time for both China and the US, raising diplomatic tension just months before leadership changes take place in both countries.

It has been particularly embarrassing for the Chinese, who saw a senior official dash into the US consulate in Chengdu barely three months ago. That incident led to the country's most severe political purge in years, with the dismissal of former Chongqing leader Bo Xilai.

Incident comes at awkward time

Chen's escape came just days before China and the US hold annual high-level talks, which begin today.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, now in the Chinese capital, issued a statement saying she was pleased that Chen could leave the embassy in a way that reflected "his choices and our values".

She added that making China keep its word to Chen and not persecute him again is the US' next crucial task.

"The United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Chen and his family in the days, weeks, and years ahead," she said.

Mrs Clinton, who had pressed Beijing on its treatment of Chen on previous occasions, spoke to him over the phone.

US officials said Chen, speaking in broken English, told Mrs Clinton: "I want to kiss you."

But Zeng, citing Chen, clarified later that what he had said was "I want to meet you."

 

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