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."
Republicans are demanding that the administration take immediate action on behalf of Mr. Chen and are blasting the decision to let him leave the U.S. Embassy.
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."
Republicans in Congress echoed Mr. Romney.
Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican, chaired Thursday's congressional hearing that featured a pleading phone call from the dissident. Mr. Smith, one of the most outspoken human rights voices in Congress and a sharp critic of the Chinese government, said he is disappointed with the way the Obama administration has handled Mr. Chen's case.
In the phone call, Mr. Chen spoke of his fear and said his hospital is being monitored by more than a half-dozen security cameras and is surrounded by an electric fence.
"I don't think U.S. officials protected human rights in this case," Mr. Smith said at the hastily called hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, added that even the "most generous reading of the administration's handling of this case is that it was naive in accepting assurances from a government that has a well-known and documented history of brutally repressing its own people under this government."
In Beijing, Mrs. Clinton didn't directly address Mr. Chen's case, but said in a speech at the opening of the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue that "we believe that all governments do have to answer to citizens' aspirations for dignity and the rule of law, and that no nation can or should deny those rights."
Fighting the one-child policy
Mr. Chen, who lost his sight after a childhood illness, is a self-taught lawyer who became an advocate for human rights. He and his wife started documenting incidents of forced abortions and sterilizations in an effort to challenge China's one-child policy.
"He's like the 'tank man' against the one-child policy," said Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women's Rights Without Frontiers, referring to the Chinese activist who used his body to block a column of Chinese tanks during pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The photo became world-famous.
"Those people who share our values are feeling extremely betrayed by us right now, that we have basically handed over a great national hero into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party from within our own embassy," Ms. Littlejohn told reporters at the Heritage Foundation.
Bob Fu, founder of the U.S.-based nonprofit ChinaAid and Mr. Chen's friend, said he spoke with an emotional Mr. Chen on Wednesday night.
"He didn't mention asylum. ... He and his family do not feel safe at all, and they want to come to the U.S. for rest or visiting or medical treatment," Mr. Fu said.
Human rights activists see in this incident an opportunity for the Obama administration to adopt a tougher stance on human rights in the bilateral dialogue with China.
"The attention brought by Chen's case is an opportunity for the U.S. administration to highlight serious human rights abuses happening in China," said T. Kumar, director of international advocacy for Amnesty International USA.
However, Harry Wu, executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation in Washington, is skeptical that Mr. Chen's case will change American policy toward the globe's emerging economic superpower.
"Every year there are millions of people in China who are forced to have abortions and are sterilized, but Americans don't really care about human rights in China," said Mr. Wu, who spent 19 years in a forced-labor camp in China.
President George W. Bush "never talked about human rights, Obama doesn't talk about it; they are only interested in business," he added.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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