Blind Legal Activist Chen Guangcheng Leaves U.S. Custody in Beijing, as Doubts Emerge Over His Situation

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Jordan Pouille / AFP / GettyImages

Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng is pushed in a wheelchair by a nurse at the Chaoyang hospital in Beijing on May 2, 2012.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in China for delicate economic talks beginning May 3. But after landing in the Chinese capital, she had another task: a conversation with blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who had just emerged from days of refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and later checked in to a local hospital where he reunited with his wife and children. The dramatic escape from extralegal house arrest by one of China’s most respected activists captured the world’s attention and threatened U.S.-China relations on the eve of Clinton’s visit to Beijing. But on May 2, Chen, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, left American custody and entered a China that has, for so many years, treated him with cruelty and brutality.

Chen’s emergence from the U.S. Embassy, where he fled to on April 27, came after days of intense negotiations between the U.S. and China. After escaping the thugs who guarded his home in Shandong province, some 500 km away from Beijing, Chen told friends that he did not want to leave China and instead wanted to continue his legal advocacy work, provided his family’s safety was ensured.”I am pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng’s stay and departure from the U.S. embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values,” said Clinton in a statement. “Mr. Chen has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment.  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.”

But a different version of events quickly emerged. The Associated Press, which talked to Chen on Wednesday evening, reported him saying that a “U.S. official told him that Chinese authorities threatened to beat his wife to death had he not left the American Embassy.” He also told the A.P. that “he now fears for his safety and wants to leave the country.” Kurt Campbell, the senior U.S. official who flew in to negotiate Chen’s case said: “I was there. Chen made the decision to leave the Embassy after he knew his family was safe and at the hospital waiting for him, and after twice being asked by Ambassador Locke if he was ready to go. He said, ‘zou,’—let’s go. We were all there as witnesses to his decision, and he hugged and thanked us all.” State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said: “At no time did any US official speak to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children. Nor did Chinese officials make any such threats to us. US interlocutors did make clear that if Chen elected to stay  in the Embassy, Chinese officials had indicated to us that his family would be returned to Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for  reunification.”

During his April 22 escape from house arrest, the courageous activist—who has been jailed and beaten for his work on behalf of women forced to undergo abortions and sterilizations in a misguided application of China’s family-planning policy—scaled a wall around his house and tip-toed past the omnipresent crew of local thugs who had guarded his home for years. Stumbling forward on an hours-long nighttime journey, he fell as many as 200 times and injured his leg crossing a river. “Chen was covered with mud and blood and water,” says Bob Fu, president of Texas-based rights group ChinaAid,. “He was a very wounded man, except in spirit.”

(MORE: How the Chen Guangcheng Case Will Test U.S.-China Relations)

After his flight, which involved the help of citizen activists who ferried him to Beijing, Chen recorded a 15-minute video in which he worried about the fate of the family that he left behind, who had been rounded up by security agents. On Wednesday afternoon, Chen reunited with his wife and two children—one of whom he had not seen for years—at Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital. Meanwhile, Chen’s lawyer, Li Jinsong, told TIME that he had spoken with his famous client after his emergence from American custody. “Chen Guangcheng called me around 3 p.m. today,” Li said. “He sounded very cheerful. He says that he hopes his close friends can visit him at the hospital and that there’s no big problem with his health.” At Chaoyang Hospital, a crew of uniformed, armed guards were stationed in the VIP ward and kept passers-by from freely entering.

(MORE: Friendly Rivals: The U.S. and China Are Still Wary After All These Years)

During his years of house arrest, both Chen and his wife were beaten by local hooligans, who also physically prevented diplomats, activists and journalists from visiting the activist’s stone farmhouse. Chen’s life, even before he took up the law on behalf of China’s powerless, was not easy. Because of obstacles placed in the path of many disabled people in China, he first stepped into a classroom at age 13. But Chen showed an avid appetite for scholarship when given the chance. While at university, where he studied traditional Chinese medicine, Chen audited law classes because blind people were not allowed to officially major in the subject. Presumably the agreement between the Chinese and the Americans that he would be given a chance to pursue higher education reflects his yearning for more knowledge.

Even as the drama surrounding Chen’s leaving of American custody played out, the Chinese government took the opportunity to castigate the U.S. On Wednesday afternoon, in the kind of stilted, rote language Beijing often reserves for what it considers meddlesome foreign powers, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a statement:

“It’s necessary to point out that China is strongly dissatisfied over the fact that the US embassy in China brought Chinese citizen Chen Guangcheng into the embassy using an abnormal measure. The US’s action is interference with China’s internal politics, which China absolutely cannot accept. The US embassy in China is obliged to comply with relevant international laws and the Chinese law, and should not participate in activities unsuited for its function…. China requests that the US apologize over this issue, thoroughly investigate this matter and hold responsible the people involved, and guarantee that things like this will not happen again…The US should reflect on its own policies and actions, and take real actions to maintain the big picture of Sino-US relations.”

A few minutes later, the Foreign Ministry’s Liu provided a possible hint that the central government may be willing to finally check the clear legal excesses of local Shandong officials, who not only jailed Chen for four years on trumped-up charges of “disturbing traffic” and “destroying property” but also kept him under extralegal house arrest since his prison release in 2010. Despite calls by foreign governments to look into Chen’s case, including a personal appeal last November by Secretary of State Clinton, the Beijing leadership refused to admit the extraordinary detention that the blind activist was kept under. But on Wednesday afternoon, Liu said something that could show Beijing’s acknowledgment—however faint—of the abuses that have occurred: “China stresses that China is a country under the rule of law, every citizen’s legal rights are protected by its constitution and laws.”

Still, says Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch: “The reports that Chen Guangcheng was targeted with a threat regarding the safety of his family by representatives of the Chinese central government within hours of his emergence from the US embassy in Beijing raise serious doubts about how safe and secure he and his family may actually be.” And by Wednesday evening, as the U.S. was lauding “Chen Guangcheng’s stay and departure from the U.S. embassy,” another expression of unease came from a friend of Chen’s, who had met with him after his escape. Taking to Twitter, which is blocked in China, Zeng Jinyan, a Beijing-based activist, also confirmed that Chen told her that he wanted to leave the country with his family–a different story from what he had told others days before. “‘Jinyan, I’m afraid,’” Chen’s wife, Yuan Weijing, told Zeng by phone. According to Zeng, Yuan said that if her husband didn’t leave the U.S. Embassy, she and their children would have been sent back to their home in Shandong, where thugs with clubs awaited them.

with reporting by Austin Ramzy, Jessie Jiang and Chengcheng Jiang/Beijing and Jay Newton-Small/Washington

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