- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2012

The American ambassador to China insisted Thursday that he never forced a blind dissident to leave the U.S. Embassy, as the human rights activist now in a hospital surrounded by Chinese police appealed for U.S. help to get out of the country.

“I can tell you unequivocally that he was never pressured to leave,” Ambassador Gary Locke told reporters in Beijing.

He said the dissident, Chen Guangcheng, “never asked for asylum” and left the embassy after reaching a deal with Chinese authorities who promised to protect him and his family.

Mr. Chen repeatedly said he wanted to stay in China and work for reform, Mr. Locke said.

Mr. Chen was also “excited and eager” to reunite with his wife and daughter, who were waiting for him at the hospital after Chinese authorities brought them to the capital from a rural province, the ambassador added.

Mr. Locke explained that U.S. diplomats spent hours with Mr. Chen in the hospital Wednesday and left thinking he was comfortable with his decision to leave the embassy.

By Thursday, however, Mr. Chen began to fear for the safety of his family.

“They, as a family, have had a change of heart about whether they want to stay in China,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who is traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on a previously scheduled visit to Beijing.

The diplomatic crisis over Mr. Chen, who entered the U.S. Embassy last week, has overshadowed Mrs. Clinton’s two-day meeting with Chinese officials on political and economic issues.

Mr. Locked called the events of the six-day embassy standoff the “most unusual, extraordinary circumstances.”

Mr. Chen had angered Chinese officials by exposing mistreatment of pregnant women in his rural Shandong province in Eastern China. He escaped from house arrest April 22, and, with the help of friends, made his way to Beijing and sought protection in the U.S. Embassy.

“He made it very, very clear from the very, very beginning that he wanted to stay in China, that he wanted to be part of the struggle to improve human rights within China and to gain greater liberty and democracy for the people of China,” Mr. Locke said.

The ambassador said he and other U.S. diplomats spent days negotiating with Chinese authorities to reach a deal with Mr. Chen, a self-taught lawyer.

China agreed to relocate him and his family from Shandong, where they have been beatened and harassed because of his human rights work. The authorities also promised to pay for his college education and housing for his family, Mr. Locke said.

The decision to allow Mr. Chen to leave the embassy brought a sharp rebuke Thursday from top congressional Republicans.

“It should have been obvious to U.S. officials all along that there is no way to guarantee Mr. Chen’s safety so long as he is within reach of the Chinese police state,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

SAFE CHOICE

President Obama settled on a career diplomat with sterling qualifications to replace a controversial college professor who resigned as U.S. ambassador to Malta last year in a public dispute with the State Department.

Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley this week presented her diplomatic credentials to Maltese President George Abela.

Mrs. Abercrombie-Winstanley joined the Foreign Service in 1985 and has served in top diplomatic positions throughout the Middle East.

She replaced Ambassador Douglas W. Kmiec, who resigned in April 2011 after the State Department accused him of spending too much time writing about religious issues and too little time on diplomatic duties.

Mr. Kmiec, in a resignation letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, complained of “flawed and narrow” bureaucrats who silenced “my voice” and “my pen.”

Mr. Kmiec, Republican and devout Catholic, endorsed Mr. Obama during the 2008 campaign and defended him to Catholics who complained about Mr. Obama’s support for abortion.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297 or email jmorrison@washingtontimes.com. The column is published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.