The Obama administration Thursday found itself on the defensive over its handling of a blind Chinese dissident at the center of a diplomatic firestorm between Washington and Beijing, as confusion over the fate of Chen Guangcheng only deepened in both capitals.
U.S. officials said they are still trying to determine the status and wishes of Mr. Chen, an internationally known human rights activist now isolated in a heavily guarded Chinese hospital room after leaving the sanctuary of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing a day earlier. Speaking by cellphone with family, reporters and lawmakers at a Capitol Hill hearing, an agitated Mr. Chen said he no longer felt safe in China and wanted to travel to the United States.
Wei Jingsheng, a leading Chinese political dissident who has been in the United States since 1997, said U.S. officials who allowed Mr. Chen to walk out of the embassy underestimated Beijing’s determination to deal with the dissident, considered among the most effective internal critics of the government’s record of forced abortions and sterilization in support of the “one-child” population control policy.
“I think that the U.S. government made a serious mistake in allowing Chen Guangcheng to leave the embassy,” Mr. Wei said. “They should not have been so quick to trust the Chinese government and should have gotten concrete guarantees in writing.”
The impasse was another in a regularly recurring series of clashes between China and the United States in which sharp disputes over human rights cases threaten to undermine cooperation in economic, security and other issues.
The case also flared as a political headache for Mr. Obama in a presidential election year.
Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney and a number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Thursday criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the case, which broke into the open even as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner were arriving in Beijing for previously scheduled strategic talks.
Amid reports that Mr. Chen’s wife, Yuan Weijing, and relatives had been pressured while he spent six days in the American compound, Obama aides said they were just trying to determine Mr. Chen’s real intentions.
“I can tell you, as you’ve seen in media reports, it seems that Mr. Chen and his wife have changed their views on what’s best for him and his family,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner confirmed Thursday that U.S. officials have not been able to see Mr. Chen at the hospital, although they have been in touch by phone with him and with his wife.
“It’s our desire to meet with him tomorrow or in the coming days,” Mr. Toner said. “But I can’t speak to whether we’ll have access to him. I just don’t know.”
Campaigning in Virginia on Thursday, Mr. Romney said the Obama administration failed to protect Mr. Chen by placing political considerations ahead of human rights concerns. If reports that the U.S. communicated implicit threats to the 40-year-old lawyer are true, Mr. Romney had an even grimmer assessment.
“If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom, and it’s a day of shame for the Obama administration,” Mr. Romney said. “We are a place of freedom, here and around the world, and we should stand up and defend freedom wherever it is under attack.”