x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Blind activist wants US to get him out of China

Chen Guangcheng's 'fervent hope' for seats for his family on Hillary Clinton's plane.

BEIJING // The agreement to allow a blind activist to remain in China free of harassment from the authorities appeared to be falling apart yesterday after he made clear he wanted to leave for the United States with his family.

With the world's media camped outside the hospital where he was taken after he left the US Embassy, Chen Guangcheng told CNN by telephone that he was "very disappointed" with how American officials had handled his case.

"My fervent hope is that it would be possible for me and my family to leave for the US on [secretary of state] Hillary Clinton's plane," he said in another interview with a US news website.

Yet, now under heavy security at Beijing's Chaoyang Hospital, where he was taken for treatment for a foot injury sustained during a daring bid for freedom from house arrest, Mr Chen said he had been unable to meet US officials yesterday to discuss his case.

Mrs Clinton, in Beijing for a two-day strategic and economic dialogue that continues today, said the United States was raising the issue of human rights with China, but she did not talk about Mr Chen specifically, and last night it remained unclear what would happen to the 40-year-old campaigner.

A state department official insisted that, whatever Mr Chen wanted to do, "we will do what we can to help him achieve that".

The uncertainty over the future of the activist threatens to embarrass the US president, Barack Obama, who could be vulnerable to criticism his administration failed to do enough to protect Mr Chen, who campaigned against forced abortions and sterilisations linked to China's one-child policy.

On Wednesday it appeared that Mr Chen's case had been resolved when he left the embassy after six days, with the United States saying a deal was in place that would enable him to settle in a different part of China and study law, away from his home in Shandong province where he had been kept under effective house arrest since September 2010.

Soon afterwards, however, confidence in the agreement began to evaporate, with Mr Chen saying he had left the embassy only because he was told that if he remained the Chinese authorities would have sent his wife back to Shandong, making her vulnerable to the local officials he says have attacked them in the past.

During his 19 months of de facto house arrest after four years in jail on charges linked to his activism, attempts by journalists to meet the campaigner were rebuffed, sometimes violently, by those guarding Mr Chen's home.

Yesterday, Mr Chen said after leaving the embassy he learnt his wife had been tied to a chair by police for two days.

Insisting he feared for his safety and that of his wife and their son and daughter if they stayed in China, he said "anything could happen" to them.

The United States yesterday confirmed Mr Chen was keen to leave his home country. Victoria Nuland, a state department official, told media "they as a family have had a change of heart about whether they want to stay in China".

"We need to consult with them further to get a better sense of what they want to do and consider their options," she said.

Yet now he has left the protection of the US embassy and is being guarded by the Chinese authorities, it is not clear whether Mr Chen, his wife and their children will be able to claim asylum in the United States.

In a later interview with the BBC yesterday, Mr Chen said the United States had "treated me well", striking a different tone to his earlier criticism.

A number of his fellow activists are believed to have been detained or put under house arrest by police over the past two days.

The United States' ambassador to China, Gary Locke, emphasised yesterday that Mr Chen left the embassy willingly and had initially been prepared to spend years there if the Chinese authorities had not made an acceptable offer on his future treatment.

China gave Mr Chen a choice of seven universities where he could study law and promised to pay all fees and living expenses.

It is thought he will remain for several days in Chaoyang Hospital, where yesterday nearly a dozen television cameras were set up across the road from the entrance.

dbardsley@thenational.ae