It was hard to take seriously the news that Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist who's been holed up in the U.S. embassy in Beijing, left "of his own volition," as China's state-run media had reported. Now that he's actually gotten the chance to talk to a reporter, it's clear he left under duress, and now wants to split the country entirely.
It was The Associated Press' Alexa Olesen and Matthew Lee who got through to Chen at the hospital where he's currently staying, after his friend, activist Zeng Jinyan, tweeted that he'd left U.S. custody because China had threatened his family. Chen hadn't spoken of leaving China before, but he said, "I think we'd like to rest in a place outside of China." And then in an appeal to the United States: "Help my family and me leave safely." He confirmed to the AP that U.S. officials told him his wife would be beaten to death if he stayed. However, the State Department told Foreign Policy's The Cable blog that no U.S. officials relayed threats to Chen. "I was there. Chen made the decision to leave the Embassy after he knew his family was safe and at the hospital waiting for him, and after twice being asked by Ambassador Locke if he [was] ready to go," Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told FP's Josh Rogin.
If true, the AP report stands in pretty stark contrast to the reports from Wednesday morning, when Chen left the U.S. embassy with a promise from China that he and his family would be kept safe. In her statement on Chen's departure, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote "Mr. Chen has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment. Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task."
The last time the Chinese government promised Chen his freedom, he wound up under house arrest, so he'd be right not to take it at its word. But what's odd is that Chen apparently didn't ask to be taken out of China until he spoke to the AP from his hospital bed. More from the AP's Oselen and Lee:
Chen, 40, said he never asked to leave China or for asylum in the U.S. and said American officials reassured him they would accompany him out of the embassy. At the hospital, Chen was reunited with his wife, his daughter and a son he hasn't seen in at least two years. But after they got to his room in Chaoyang Hospital, he said no U.S. officials stayed behind and that the family is now scared and wants to leave the country.
It sounds like Chen was operating carefully until he lost his U.S. contacts, then decided to open up to the media as a last-ditch effort. But he might have a little more pull with the State Department than in the past, now that he's made headlines this week. As The New York Times' Nick Kristof pointed out on Twitter, "Remember also that if Chen gets disappeared again, the Obama administration will be humiliated."