In a day of dramatic developments, the blind Chinese lawyer who left the US embassy in Beijing yesterday has called on Barack Obama to do everything possible to let his family leave China.
“I would like to say to (President Obama): Please do everything you can to get our whole family out,” 40-year-old activist Chen Guangcheng told CNN.
Chen, who spent six days under US diplomatic protection, says originally he did not plan to leave China but he was forced to leave the embassy for Beijing’s Chaoyang hospital because US officials told him of threats by Chinese authorities to send his wife and children back to their home in Shandong province — where they were subject to house arrest.
Chen told Channel 4 News:
I came [to Chaoyang hospital] because of an agreement. I was worried about the safety of my family. A gang of them have taken over our house, sitting in our room and eating at our table, waving thick sticks around.
They’ve turned our home into a prison, with seven cameras and electric fence all around.
He has also said he hopes to leave the People’s Republic on US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s plane when she leaves China after bilateral talks later this week.
US officials said today that they are still trying to assist Chen and denied he was pressured to leave the embassy.
Chen’s jarring account emerged after a spectacularly brave move by his close friend Zeng Jinyan (who wrote for Index about growing support for the dissident here). The activist tweeted yesterday that she had spoken to Chen and and his wife, Yuan Weijing, who said they had received threats of being beaten to death if he left the country.
Chen’s wife told CNN that the family’s life was in danger and that matters had worsened since the activist’s escape. “Right now, we can’t even freely use our phone. I can’t even freely walk out of the hospital,” she said, adding:
After Guangcheng got out, the government was persuading me to stay here. But they were also tightening their grip on me. I became really worried. If they ever get us back home, they would put us in an iron cage.
These developments contrast with US officials’ prior claims yesterday that Chen had planned to remain in China to continue his work by studying law at university, and that the Chinese government had given them assurances of his safety.
In the last the 36 hours the unsettling — and often confusing — story has unravelled into a diplomatic storm between China and the United States. Negotiations had been ongoing since Chen’s dramatic escape to Beijing from over 18 months under house arrest in the village of Dongshigu, Shandong province last week. Clinton said earlier this week that a “constructive relationship” between the two powers “includes talking very frankly about those areas where we do not agree, including human rights”.
Meanwhile, nationalist Chinese tabloid the Global Times said in an editorial today that it was “meaningless” to use Chen’s case to attack China’s human rights, arguing that the country’s progress in improving its human rights record would not be “beleaguered” by such moves:
It is certain that Chen’s case is only an interlude for China’s development. It will not undermine social stability, nor will it hinder the normal development and progress of China’s human rights. China can take a composed attitude when such cases happen again.
Chen, noted for his efforts to expose forced abortions, spent four years in prison on charges of disturbing public order before being placed under house arrest. He won the Index on Censorship whistleblowing award for his activities in 2007.
Marta Cooper is an editorial researcher at Index. She tweets at @martaruco