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Chinese Dissident Chen Guangchen Leaves U.S. Sanctuary

May 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: A leading Chinese dissident gave up his U.S. diplomatic sanctuary today. That much was clear. But nearly everything else surrounding the fate of the blind activist remained in dispute.

Chen Guangcheng emerged from the American Embassy in Beijing today after being holed up there for six days. He was accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke and was taken to this nearby hospital to treat a leg injury. There, he was reunited with his wife, daughter, and son.

But in short order, Chen told the Associated Press in a phone interview from the hospital that he had left the embassy under duress.

CHEN GUANGCHENG, Chinese Dissident (through translator): If I didn’t leave, the Chinese authorities would endanger my family and send them back to Shandong. Also, I got the feeling that the U.S. government in the embassy was quite supportive of me leaving as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Chen claimed American officials told him the Chinese threatened to kill his wife and send his family back to his home province. He had been under house arrest there for months before escaping in April.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner disputed that account.

MARK TONER, State Department spokesman: At no time did any U.S. official speak to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children, and nor did any Chinese officials make any threats to us or through us.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, U.S. officials said the Chinese government promised not to retaliate against Chen. They also said he did not want asylum in the U.S., but instead would be allowed to study in a university town.

But Chen told the AP that U.S. officials disappeared after he reached the hospital and that he now fears for his safety and wants to leave China.

CHEN GUANGCHENG (through translator): I feel that, if they could ensure our safety, I’d stay, but the way it looks now, I have already lost hope of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Back in Washington, the State Department spokesman had this response.

MARK TONER: At no time did he ever request political asylum. That’s another thing we’re seeing in the press. At every opportunity, according, again, to those officials who were with him during his stay at the U.S. Embassy, he expressed a desire to stay in China. He wanted to reunify with his family.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even as Chen was heading to the hospital, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Beijing for a long-scheduled talks. She released a statement before Chen spoke out in which she welcomed the agreement.

“I am pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng’s stay and departure from the U.S. Embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values.”

“Foreign Policy” magazine editor Susan Glasser traveled with the Clinton delegation to China. She says U.S. officials believe they tried to help Chen.

SUSAN GLASSER, Foreign Policy: They thought this was the best they can do. I wouldn’t say that they thought this was necessarily a great deal.

Clearly, there’s not a ton of guarantees that the Chinese will abide by this agreement. I think they were very careful to say that they believe this is what Chen wanted was to stay in China. If he’s changed his mind, obviously, that changes how we’re going to look upon this deal and whether it was the right thing to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, the Chinese government demanded an apology from the United States.

Foreign Minister Liu Weimin said, “What the U.S. side has done has interfered in the domestic affairs of China, and the Chinese side will never accept it.”

In the meantime, security was tight outside the hospital where Chen is being treated, and the hospital’s name was quickly banned as a search term on the Chinese Internet.