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Beijing - Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng says he wants to leave for the United States rather than stay in China, throwing into doubt a deal used to coax him out of the US embassy in Beijing and defuse a stand-off that has strained China-US ties.
That stand-off appears all the more troublesome for the United States, with Chen saying on Thursday that he feared for his and his family's safety if he stayed in China under an agreement that US officials initially said he was happy with.
Chen, a self-taught legal activist, is under Chinese control in a Beijing hospital, having left the embassy on Wednesday. He had taken refuge at the mission for six days after escaping house arrest and left under a diplomatic solution that was meant to assure him that his circumstances in China would be improved.
But Chen told Reuters on Thursday by telephone from hospital, where he was escorted by US officials after leaving the embassy, that he had changed his mind after speaking to his wife who spoke of recent threats made against his family.
“I feel very unsafe. My rights and safety cannot be assured here,” he said, adding that his family supported his decision to try to get to the United States.
The activist, citing descriptions from his wife, Yuan Weijing, said his family had been surrounded by Chinese officials who menaced them and filled the family home. Chen, from a village in rural Shandong province, has two children.
“When I was inside the American embassy, I didn't have my family, and so I didn't understand some things. After I was able to meet them, my ideas changed.”
Chen's decision puts more strain on US-China relations at a tense time for both countries.
US President Barack Obama will be sensitive to any criticism of the handling of Chen's case in the run-up to a November presidential election and China is struggling to push through its own leadership transition late this year.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton found herself in the eye of the diplomatic storm on Thursday, turning up for the opening of annual bilateral talks in Beijing which have been overshadowed but not derailed by the Chen case.
She used the occasion to urge China to protect human rights but made no specific mention of Chen, whom she had spoken to on Wednesday after he left the embassy.
“Of course, as part of our dialogue, the United States raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Clinton said. “We believe all governments have to answer our citizens' aspirations for dignity and the rule of law and that no nation can or should deny those rights.”
Despite Chen's change of heart about staying in China, it was unclear if he would be able to travel to the United States. Having left the embassy and the protection of US authorities, his fate is now in the hands of the Chinese government.
US officials appeared to be no longer with him on Thursday, with the dissident saying he had still not had an opportunity to explain his change of heart to the US side.
“I hope the US will help me leave immediately. I want to go there for medical treatment,” Chen said from the hospital, where a pack of camera crews and reporters was waiting outside, kept away from the entrance by a few police.
Washington had hoped its deal with Beijing over Chen would defuse the crisis, with both Clinton and US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in the Chinese capital for this week's bilateral talks - in which the United States will aim to secure more cooperation from China on trade and international flashpoints such as North Korea, Iran and Syria.
Under the deal, according to US officials, Chen and his family would have been relocated within the country in safety and he would be allowed to pursue his studies.
But Chinese authorities have taken a tough tone, criticising what they called US meddling and demanding an apology for the way US diplomats handled the case.
Chinese President Hu Jintao made no mention of the Chen case in his remarks to the US-China talks but stressed that the two nations needed trust.
“It is impossible for China and the United States to see eye-to-eye on every issue, but both sides must know how to respect each other,” he said.
Earlier, Chen directed a personal appeal to Obama in comments aired on CNN: “I would like to say to President Obama, please do everything you can to get our family out.”
Chen is a self-schooled legal advocate who campaigned against forced abortions under China's “one-child” policy. He escaped 19 months of house arrest, during which he and his family faced beatings and threats, on April 22.
US officials had said Chen left the embassy of his own free will because he wanted to be reunited with his wife and children. US officials said that Chen wanted to remain in China and that he never asked for asylum.
Chen's dramatic escape from house arrest last week and his flight to the US embassy have made him a symbol of resistance to China's shackles on dissent, and the deal struck by Beijing and Washington would have kept him an international test case of how tight or loose those restrictions remain.
Now, however, his change of mind throws not only his own future into doubt but also raises questions about the wider US-China relationship.
It could also prove politically costly for US President Obama, who has already been accused of being soft on China by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and who could now face further criticism over Chen's case.
What initially appeared to be a foreign policy success for the Obama administration could quickly turn into a liability. - Reuters