Chen Guangcheng Ready to Leave China

Chen Guangcheng’s story has continued to gain momentum, with the activist’s face and iconic dark glasses gracing the cover of this week’s Economist magazine (although Bo Xilai beat him onto the cover of TIME). Chen unexpectedly addressed an emergency session of the Congressional Executive Committee on China by phone on Thursday, expressing his new hope of being able to leave China, temporarily, for the US. From Foreign Policy:

Chen’s call came into the iPhone of friend and fellow activist Bob Fu during the middle of the hearing of the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC), chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ). Fu and Smith ran out of the hearing room to take the call and returned minutes later to put Chen on speakerphone so that he could address the audience.

“I want to make the request to have my freedom of travel guaranteed,” Chen said in Chinese, with Fu translating.

Chen said he wants to come to the United States for a period of rest because he has not had any rest in 10 years.

“I want to meet with Secretary Clinton,” Chen said. “I also want to thank her face to face.”

According to the terms of his departure from the US embassy in Beijing on Wednesday, Chen was to be allowed to remain with his family in China, where he would study law at a university of his choice, away from his former captors in Shandong, at the expense of the Chinese government and under the watchful gaze of the US. But once outside the shelter of the embassy, he decided that this would be impossible. From The Washington Post:

Blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng on Thursday began a second night isolated in a central Beijing hospital, as police and security guards barred U.S. diplomats, journalists and Chen supporters from seeing him, and as the activist told various news outlets that he now wants to leave China with his family for asylum in the United States.

In an interview early Friday with The Washington Post, Chen clarified that he wants to go to the United States only temporarily and insists on the freedom to return to China. He said he left the U.S. Embassy on Wednesday of his own free will, but he charged that the Chinese government is reneging on promises to U.S. officials to fully restore his freedom.

“The U.S. Embassy helped me a lot,” Chen said. “But I don’t think the Chinese side is obeying the agreement well.”

U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke said Thursday that “it’s apparent now that he’s had a change of heart” and wants to go to the United States. Chen had previously insisted that he wanted to remain in China, U.S. officials said. In an interview broadcast on CNN, Locke said U.S. diplomats spoke twice with Chen by telephone Thursday and met in person with his wife, Yuan Weijing. He said the United States was now assessing how best to assist Chen.

See also a video interview with Chen from Reuters, via The Guardian, and Louisa Lim’s report for NPR.

Chen’s tone towards the US has softened since a series of telephone interviews on Wednesday, for example with CNN’s Steven Jiang:

Q: U.S. officials said you looked optimistic when you walked out of the embassy, what happened?

A: At the time I didn’t have a lot of information. I wasn’t allowed to call my friends from inside the embassy. I couldn’t keep up with news so I didn’t know a lot of things that were happening.

Q: What prompted your change of heart?

A: The embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised to have people stay with me in the hospital. But this afternoon as soon as I checked into the hospital room, I noticed they were all gone ….

Q: Do you feel you were lied to by the embassy?

A: I feel a little like that.

Q: What has this ordeal taught you?

A: I feel everyone focuses too much on their self-interest at the expense of their credibility.

The earlier sense of betrayal may have been in part a product of Chen’s exhausted and emotionally strained state, evident in another interview with Newsweek’s Melinda Liu. Liu described his family’s isolation in the heavily guarded hospital, their difficulty in obtaining food, and the psychological toll that recent events had clearly taken:

I’ve known Chen Guangcheng for more than a decade—he’s been through intimidation, beatings, jail, and extralegal house arrest—but through it all I never sensed he was scared. Now he’s scared. Chen, whose case has escalated into a bilateral crisis that threatens to dominate Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Beijing this week, was weeping as he talked to me over the phone from his hospital bed.

Speaking to Liu, Chen appeared to contradict his earlier statement—stringently denied by US officials—that he had been told his wife would be beaten to death if he did not leave the embassy. But as others including Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth agreed, there was a clear implicit threat in the fact that she would otherwise be sent back to Shandong. From The Daily Beast, again:

He told me there was no explicit threat that she would be submitted to physical violence, “but nobody had to say it, I know what we’ve experienced all these years back in Shandong. Our home was surrounded by guards, lots of guards. Our friends weren’t allowed to visit. If we tried to go out we’d be beaten, often with clubs.” Security personnel had even escorted his young daughter to and from school; Chen and his wife hadn’t seen their son for two years before their reunion at the hospital.

While Chen had hoped to continue his activism in China, overriding concern for his newly reunited family spurred his decision to try to leave. From Alexa Oleson at The Associated Press:

Chen Guangcheng’s sudden change of heart to leave China after insisting for days he wanted to stay has caught his American supporters off guard. But his reason was simple: His family’s safety came first.

Reliant on relatives to be his eyes on the world, Chen and his family share a bond strengthened by years of enforced isolation and a shared fight against vengeful local officials. His son was taken from him two years ago. His daughter has been harassed, his wife beaten, his mother followed by guards as she tilled their fields ….

Photos of the reunion released Thursday by the U.S. show Chen in a wheelchair in a bright hospital hallway smiling warmly as he greeted his wife and two children. His 6-year-old daughter, Kesi, wore pigtails and his son of about 10, Kerui, was dressed in a T-shirt and sweat pants. In a second shot, Kerui rested a tentative hand on his father’s wheelchair.

The moment marked the first time in two years that the boy had seen his father, diplomats said.

Chen’s immediate family are not the only ones at risk, however, as lawyer Teng Biao rather forcefully pointed out in a recorded phone conversation. From Kenneth Tan’s translated transcript at Shanghaiist:

Teng Biao: I heard one of the guards watching over you was detained, the one that helped you escape. Is this true?

Chen Guangcheng: Nobody helped me escape. I escaped by myself.

TB: Have you heard about Pearl [Nanjing activist who helped Chen escape]?

CGC: No, but I heard she has disappeared.

TB: Yes, she has disappeared. Guo Yushan has also been released but he’s also in danger. Without a doubt, they are going to sort all you guys out later. They also promised in [1989] they would not punish anyone, but look what happened next – how many people did they shoot?

According to unconfirmed reports online, Pearl, or He Peirong, was back home but under house arrest on Wednesday; her car, covered with dust, was apparently found abandoned in her home city of Nanjing. In an ominous sign of further reprisals against Chen’s friends and supporters, Zeng Jinyan was also placed under house arrest on Thursday:

Activist Zeng Jinyan was taking her young daughter to school on Thursday morning when public security agents who had been following her in a black car informed her she wouldn’t be allowed to leave her home, she said in a post on her Twitter account.

“We will do our utmost to see to it that your daughter is picked up and dropped off and do our utmost to see to your daily needs. You can’t go out for these next few days,” she quoted the agents as saying.

Ms. Zeng had been among the first to cast doubt on the deal for Mr. Chen’s release the previous night, saying on Twitter that Mr. Chen and his wife had told her Mr. Chen was willing to leave China with his family but left the embassy out of fear for his family’s safety. Ms. Zeng wasn’t answering her phone Thursday afternoon.

Teng Biao has also cut off contact with the media. But journalists faced other problems as the authorities celebrated World Press Freedom Day in their own distinctive way. The BBC’s global news head Peter Horrocks complained that its own report on the obstruction of reporters was blocked:

Horrocks said the BBC was targeted over its coverage of Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist who escaped house arrest and fled to the US embassy in Beijing.

“Today is World Press Freedom Day and during recent days we have learnt that BBC World News, our 24/7 international news channel, has been jammed by Chinese authorities during stories they regard as sensitive,” said Horrocks in a blogpost on the BBC’s website.

“This deliberate electronic interference of the channel’s distribution signal is just the latest in a long line of examples to block our impartial news and prevent it reaching audiences.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists provides more information on the obstruction of reporters on the case:

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China circulated an email to members Thursday, warning them that “reporters have had their press cards confiscated (hopefully just temporarily) and have been escorted from the premises at Chaoyang Hospital.” Chen was being treated at the hospital on Wednesday for injuries he sustained during his dramatic flight from extrajudicial house arrest to the U.S. embassy last week, according to international news reports. The story is censored in China.

In two separate incidents, men in plainclothes harassed and threatened media crews from two outlets who were attempting to visit Chen’s home on Tuesday and Wednesday, the news outlets reported. Stephen Jiang, an editor for CNN in Beijing, described his encounter on the CNN website, saying that “a half-dozen burly men stood guard,” which led to scuffling and a cameraman’s equipment being seized. The reporting trip was intended to “find Chen’s family—but couldn’t get close,” Jiang reported.