U.S. exploring activist's apparent 'change of heart,' envoy says

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Story highlights

  • The U.S. wants to 'support him every step of the way," Ambassador Locke says
  • Chen had the option of staying in the embassy for years, Locke says
  • The U.S. took "extraordinary steps to bring him into the embassy," he says

The United States took "extraordinary" measures to bring Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng to its embassy and plans to help him "every step of the way," the U.S. ambassador to China told CNN on Thursday.

Chen escaped house arrest in the eastern China province of Shandong last weekend and fled to the Chinese capital, where he stayed in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for six days before he was taken to a hospital after an agreement about his future was hammered out between the United States and China.

But the 40-year-old blind, self-taught lawyer now regrets leaving the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and wants U.S. officials to scurry him out of the Chinese hospital and send him to the United States.

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"We have always cared so much about him, we have been so supportive of him and his family for years, that's why we took such extraordinary -- almost mission impossible -- steps to bring him into the embassy, at great risk to our own personnel," U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke told CNN.

"If he's had this apparent change of heart, we need to talk with him, we need to make sure we understand fully his wishes, and then we'll take it from there. ... We support him every step of the way."

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Untangling what has now become a U.S.-Chinese diplomatic quagmire has turned into an even greater "mission impossible." The predicament has strained U.S.-China relations, with the United States balancing its important ties with Beijing and its commitment to human rights.

Before he escaped, Chen had been confined to his home after serving four years in prison, apparently over his legal advocacy for what he called victims of abuse practices, such as forced abortions and sterilizations by Chinese officials.

Afterward, the United States began brokering a deal with Chinese authorities over Chen's future.

"At one point, he indicated that he could not accept what the Chinese government has presented to him" and "had the option of staying in the embassy, for years if necessary."

Locke said Chen wanted to be reunited with his family and stay in China "to continue his activism." The United States and China then reached an agreement for Chen.

The Chinese government committed to relocate him to a "safe environment" away from the province where he and his family say they suffered abuse, and to provide him with educational opportunities. China also agreed to investigate allegations of mistreatment and promised that Chen would not face any further legal issues, U.S. officials said.

"He wanted to be reunified with his family, he wanted the opportunity to pursue legal studies, and in fact the Chinese government offered him a full scholarship at one of seven universities of his choosing, with housing and living expenses for him and his entire family," he said.

Locke said it was Chen's decision to leave the embassy.

"And let me just say that we achieved everything he wanted us to achieve, and that in the end it was his decision," Locke said. "And I remember we were sitting there, after he'd had two conversations with his wife, and we'd given him as much time as he needed. And then we said, 'What is your choice? What do you want to do? Are you ready to leave?' And then we just stopped. And about two minutes later, he jumped up -- beaming, excited, happy, and says, 'Let's go!'

"Then in the car ride, just before we got into the van, I asked him again. I said: 'Is this what you really want to do, do you want to leave the embassy?' And he said: 'Yes.' We have to respect his wishes. At the same time, a day earlier, he said he did not want to leave the embassy, and was prepared to live there for several years. We respected his wishes, and began preparations and talking about procedures under which he would live in the embassy."

Chen said he left the embassy only after U.S. officials encouraged him to do so.

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"The embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised to have people stay with me at the hospital," he said. "But this afternoon, as soon as I checked into the hospital room, I noticed they were all gone."

Chen said he was "very disappointed" in the U.S. government and felt "a little" that he had been lied to by the embassy. He said that when he was reunited with his family at the hospital, he learned that his wife, Yuan Weijing, had been badly treated after his escape.

"She was tied to a chair by police for two days," he said. "Then they carried thick sticks to our house, threatening to beat her to death. Now they have moved into the house. They eat at our table and use our stuff."

Chen said Thursday that he did not fully grasp what he was facing when he agreed to abandon the embassy a day earlier. He said he didn't have a lot of information but realized his life and that of his wife would be in danger if he were to remain in the country. He said he was told that had he not left the embassy, "they would send her back (to the family's village in Shandong), and people there would beat her."

He said he also learned that Chinese officials had rounded up some of his supporters after his escape and placed some of them under house detention.

Locke said the United States needs to "explore all options" with Chen, such as political asylum in the United States.

"You cannot achieve political asylum unless you're first outside of the country you're trying to flee. You have to be in the United States first to petition for asylum," he said.

Locke said U.S. officials had conversations with Yuan "at great length" and she said that "we treated him very, very well."

"It's apparent now that he's had a change of heart. So we're going to have to engage in further discussions with him, find out what it is that he wants. And then we'll act accordingly," Locke said.

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