BEIJING (MCT) — Blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng does not want political asylum and will instead stay in China with assurances from the Chinese government he and his family can live a normal life, a senior U.S. official said Wednesday.
The dramatic announcement, after days of behind-the-scenes negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials, came shortly after Chen was reunited with his wife and two children at a local hospital where he was treated for non-life threatening injuries sustained during his escape from house arrest more than a week ago.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed for the first time that Chen, 40, sought protection at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where staff there agreed to help on “humanitarian grounds.”
“He made it clear he wanted to remain in China and wanted to stay in the embassy temporarily,” the official said, adding that Chen’s priority was to be reunited with his family.
As Chen, carrying crutches, was driven out of the embassy to a nearby hospital, he received a phone call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had just arrived in the Chinese capital for two days of pre-scheduled high-level talks. The official said Chen was emotional and told Clinton in broken English: “I want to kiss you.”
In an agreement carved-out by the U.S. and Chinese sides, Chen will be relocated to a safe environment and allowed to attend a university where he will be free of legal harassment. American diplomats were assured they could check-in on Chen to see if he was still being treated fairly.
Meanwhile, Chinese officials agreed to investigate Chen’s extralegal detention in his village of Dongshigu, where he was held without charge under house arrest for 19 months. During that time, he and his family were regularly beaten and harassed and denied medical attention.
Promises were also made not to punish supporters who helped Chen escape.
It was still unclear late Wednesday whether one of the supporters who drove Chen to Beijing, He Peirong, had been located after days of being missing. Chen’s nephew, Chen Kegui, is also missing after fighting with men who raided his home searching for his uncle.
China’s foreign ministry released a terse statement over state-run media that Chen had left the embassy on his volition after staying there six days. The ministry also demanded an apology from the U.S. for taking a Chinese citizen “via abnormal means.”
The U.S. official said Washington would not apologize, explaining: “This is an extraordinary case under exceptional circumstances ...We don’t expect it to be repeated.”
Questions remain about how seriously China will follow its pledge to ensure Chen’s safety given the ordinarily limited tolerance authorities have for dissent.
Chen enraged local officials in Shandong for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations and served a prison sentence on what’s widely agreed to be trumped-up charges of disrupting order. The central government’s inaction during Chen’s subsequent house arrest was seen as a signal of complicity by human rights defenders.
“This was not easy for the Chinese government,” the U.S. official said of the unprecedented agreement to release a dissident conditionally.