With a diplomatic solution to the case of a blind Chinese legal activist unraveling, the White House on Thursday defended the administration’s handling of the the dissident’s case, insisting that U.S. officials had not pressured him to stay in the country.
Just hours after leaving the security of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to seek medical treatment at a hospital, Chen Guangcheng began telling friends, family and the media that he felt threatened and wanted to seek asylum in the United States or another country.
The case has put the U.S. government on the defensive and threatens to become a major point of division between the two countries just as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner were in China for high-level bilateral talks.
White House spokesman Jay Carney referred specific questions about whether President Obama supports asylum for Mr. Chen to the State Department, but Mr. Carney indicated what Mr. Chen said after his release did not match what he told American officials in private.
“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,” Mr. Carney said during his daily press briefing Thursday afternoon.
All seemed resolved after Mr. Chen left the embassy Wednesday, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke and other American officials. But Mr. Chen found himself in the hospital alone, surrounded by Chinese security officers patrolling the corridors, and he panicked, realizing that he no longer had the ability to enlist he diplomatic power of the United States to keep him safe. Reports that his wife was beaten by Chinese authorities only added more drama to an already tense international clash over human rights.
“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,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, said in a statement. “The U.S. should not have given in to Chinese pressure for Chen to be taken out of the safety of the U.S. Embassy.”
Also criticizing the decision to let Mr. Chen go was Wei Jingsheng, a leading Chinese political dissident who has been in the United States since 1997.
“Chen Guangcheng is no longer under the protection of the U.S. government, and there is no chance that the Chinese government will allow him to leave,” Mr. Wei, speaking in Mandarin, told the Agence France-Presse news service.
Mr. Carney told reporters that Mr. Obama was being kept abreast of developments, but the press secretary refused to say how the president viewed the matter and whether he supports allowing Mr. Chen to seek refuge in the United States.