Blind Legal Activist Chen Guangcheng: “I Want My Family to Leave China”

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U.S. Embassy Beijing Press Office / Handout / Reuters

Flanked by medical staff and U.S. officials, blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng speaks to his wife and children at a Beijing hospital on May 2, 2012.

Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who left the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after sheltering there for the six days, says he now fears for his safety and wants to leave China. In a telephone interview with TIME, Chen said that he changed his mind after arriving at a local hospital and became concerned that he and his family are at risk. “I left the U.S. Embassy after an agreement was reached by the Chinese and the U.S. sides, and I believe the Chinese government when it promised to grant me full rights and freedom,” Chen said. “But since I left the embassy, I haven’t been able to see any of my friends, and I haven’t been able to contact my family back in Shandong. My cell phone was also cut off for a brief period last night. Now I don’t believe the government can keep its promises.”

Over a few hours on Wednesday the case of Chen has turned from a soft power victory for the Americans to a potential diplomatic debacle. Chen had escaped harsh, extralegal detention in his village in rural Shandong province on April 22. Then with the help of activists he fled to the protection U.S. diplomats in Beijing. On Wednesday the U.S. State Department announced that Chen left the embassy after China acknowledged he would be treated humanely and relocated to a safe environment in China where he could study law. “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,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in Beijing Wednesday for the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, said in a statement.

(MORE: Chen Guangcheng Affair: U.S. Denies China Dissident’s Account of Coercion)

Images of Chen smiling as he left the Embassy around 3 p.m. Wednesday were replaced hours later by reports that he had grown fearful for his safety. After telling American officials for days that he wanted to stay in China, Chen changed his mind. “I want my family to leave China as soon as possible,” he told TIME Thursday afternoon. “This was not what I originally hoped for, but I changed my mind last night.”  Zeng Jinyan, a Beijing-based activist and friend of Chen’s, wrote on Twitter that Chen had been warned that if he remained in U.S. protection, his wife, Yuan Weijing, and their two children would be sent back to Shandong, where thugs with clubs awaited them. Reached by phone late Wednesday Zeng confirmed her Twitter message to TIME, adding she couldn’t speak further. “It’s a big risk,” she said. On Thursday morning Zeng tweeted that she had been put under house arrest by Chinese state security officers.

Now U.S. diplomats have been at pains to say Chen wasn’t coerced to leave the embassy. “I can tell you unequivocally that he was never pressed to leave,” U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke told reporters Thursday. “We waited for him to make his decision.” But human rights activists and some members of Congress are questioning whether the U.S. took sufficient steps to protect Chen, his family and the activists who helped him but are now facing possible retaliation from Chinese authorities. “We are increasingly concerned indications that the deal struck between the U.S. government and the Chinese government to allow Chen Guangcheng to leave the U.S. embassy has apparently paid such little attention to the crucial details of ensuring his safety, well-being and peace of mind in the immediate aftermath of his release,” says Phelim Kine, a senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “There are worrying indications that Chen Guangcheng has good reason to feel that he had been left alone in the hospital following his release, without the accompaniment, support and reassurance of U.S. embassy officials.”

with reporting by Jessie Jiang
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