Update: the Associated Press has spoken via Skype to a close friend of Chen, Zeng Jinyan, who claims that Chinese officials forced the activist to choose between going into exile alone or staying in China with his family. More details as we get them.
In the first confirmation that the blind legal activist had been housed under US diplomatic protection following his escape from house arrest last week, US ambassador Gary Locke called the Washington Post to say he was with Chen en route to Chaoyang Hospital in east Beijing. Chen is also said to have spoken to US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who is due to arrive in Beijing today for bilateral talks, with whom he “shared a mutual admiration”.
State news agency Xinhua said that 40-year-old Chen, a prolific human rights activist known for his campaign against forced abortions in China’s Shandong province, left the embassy “of his own volition” after staying there for six days.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin has demanded an apology from the United States, accusing the country of taking a Chinese citizen “via abnormal means” into its embassy and of having “interfered in the domestic affairs of China”.
US officials told Reuters that “this was an extraordinary case involving exceptional circumstances, and we do not anticipate that it will be repeated.” They added that Chen plans to remain in China to continue his work, and that the Chinese government had given them assurances of his safety.
Today’s developments come after several days of sensitive negotiations designed to resolve the activist’s fate ahead of Clinton’s arrival in Beijing. US president Barack Obama signalled his support for Chen yesterday, noting that China would “be stronger” if it were to improve its human rights record. Clinton said that a “constructive relationship includes talking very frankly about those areas where we do not agree, including human rights”.
Chen spent four years in prison on charges of disturbing public order before being placed under house arrest in the village of Dongshigu in September 2010. He fled to the Chinese capital last week and a video was released online in which he claimed he and his family had been tortured by officials.
Whether or not Chen is indeed “a free man”, as one of his lawyers Li Jingsong was quoted as saying today, remains to be seen. “I am highly sceptical in terms of promises about the rule of law,” Beijing-based writer and documentary film-maker Charlie Custer told Index, noting that the government has “virtually a zero per cent track record” of treating Chen according to Chinese law.
He added: “I highly doubt Chen will be allowed to be entirely free; I suspect he’ll be sent back to where he was before. He won’t be allowed to operate as a regular Chinese citizen would and should be.”
“He should have been a free man 18 months ago when he should’ve been released from prison,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights researcher based in Hong Kong, adding that the Chinese government had a long time to protect the activist.
“They only gave these assurances because of the actions of Chen to escape and because this became a high-profile diplomatic incident,” he said.
The safety of several of Chen’s supporters, such as activist He Peirong (@pearlher) also remains uncertain. He, a Nanjing-based activist and one of Chen’s most prolific supporters, is thought to still be detained after police took her from her home on 27 April for having helped Chen escape house arrest. Chen’s nephew, Chen Kegui, is understood to be in hiding.
“If China was serious about assuring Chen’s safety then they’d release them [his supporters],” Beijing-based writer and documentary film-maker Charlie Custer told Index. “The fact that they’ve not done that speaks volumes as to China’s intentions of how they’ll treat Chen.
“All He Peirong did was drive him to Beijing, why is she being held by police?” Custer added.
Meanwhile, security was tight at the hospital where Chen was being treated. Tom Lasseter, Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, tweeted from the scene:
Today’s developments need to be monitored closely to ensure the guarantees promised to Chen are not a one-off, Rosenzweig added. If China does not fulfill its promises, he said, “there is not much in the way of progress.”
“Serious questions need to be asked about nature of political system that places a high priority on maintaining stability above all else, and how that kind of a system makes it possible for local agents to carry out egregious infringements on individual rights for such a long time without intervention,” he said.
Marta Cooper is an editorial researcher at Index. She tweets at @martaruco