Activist Chen Guangcheng chose to stay in China to protect family from death threats, friend says

Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng is seen in a wheelchair pushed by a nurse at the Chaoyang hospital in Beijing May 2, 2012. AFP/Getty Images

(AP) BEIJING - A close friend of the blind Chinese legal activist who holed up in the U.S. Embassy to flee persecution said Chen Guangcheng agreed to stay in China only to protect his family after receiving threats that his wife would be beaten to death if he left the country.

Beijing activist Zeng Jinyan told The Associated Press on Wednesday via Skype that Chinese officials forced Chen to choose between going into exile alone or staying in China with his family. After six days in hiding, Chen emerged from the embassy Wednesday after U.S. officials said China had assured his safety.

Zeng said she spoke by phone with Chen and his wife while he was in the hospital. A disappointed-sounding Chen told her that his wife's life had been threatened, she said.

"He said what he wanted was totally different but because no one can protect his wife and children" he had to accept, Zeng said via Skype.

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There was no immediate response from U.S. or Chinese officials to Zeng's comments. Her account that Chen wanted to go abroad contrasts with earlier comments by Chen's supporters saying that he had vowed to stay in China to continue his activism.

Chen's escape from illegal house arrest in eastern China and his flight into the protection of U.S. diplomats in Beijing last week had threatened to derail annual U.S.-China strategic talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton starting Thursday.

On Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke escorted Chen to Chaoyang Hospital, where he was reunited with his family as he awaited medical treatment for injuries suffered during his escape. On the way, the activist called his lawyer, Li Jinsong, who said Chen told him: "'I'm free. I've received clear assurances.'"

Chen, 40, also received a call from Clinton, whom he thanked in Chinese for raising his case, a U.S. official said. Chen then told Clinton in halting English, "'I want to kiss you,'" the official said.

Chen's case has been the most delicate diplomatic crisis for Washington and Beijing in years. He had become an international symbol for human dignity after running afoul of local government officials for exposing forced abortions carried out as part of China's one-child policy.

As part of the agreement that ended the fraught, behind-the-scenes standoff, U.S. officials said China agreed to let Chen and his family be relocated to a safe place in China where he could study at a university, and that his treatment by local officials would be investigated.

Clinton said in a statement that Chen's exit from the embassy "reflected his choices and our values" and said the U.S. would monitor the assurances Beijing gave. "Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task," she said.

In a fit of face-saving pique, the Chinese Foreign Ministry demanded that the U.S. apologize, investigate how Chen got into the embassy and hold those responsible accountable.

"What the U.S. side has done has interfered in the domestic affairs of China, and the Chinese side will never accept it," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a statement.

The apparent resolution shelves, at least for now, a predicament that threatened to move human rights to the front of a U.S.-China agenda crowded with disagreements over trade imbalances, North Korea and Syria.

With Chen out of the way, Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts can focus on the original purpose of their two-day talks starting Thursday: building trust between the world's superpower and its up-and-coming rival.

However, leaving Chen in China is risky for President Obama because Washington will now be seen as party to an agreement on Chen's safety that it does not have the power to enforce.

The negotiations over Chen's fate also included the option of sending him to the U.S., activists said.

Senior U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the intense negotiations that led to Chen leaving the embassy, said the U.S. helped Chen get into the embassy because he injured his leg escaping from his village. In the embassy, Chen did not request safe passage out of China or asylum in the U.S., the officials said.

The officials refused to say if Washington would apologize. One official said that embassy staff acted "lawfully" and in conformity with policy, suggesting that the U.S. does not believe it has anything to apologize for.

Another official would say only that "this was an extraordinary case involving exceptional circumstance, we do not anticipate that it will be repeated."

The officials said they expected that Chinese officials would raise Chen's case during a Wednesday dinner that State Councilor Dai Bingguo is hosting for Clinton and again during the strategic portion of the high-level talks on Thursday and Friday.

Chen served four years in prison on what supporters said were fabricated charges and was then kept under house arrest with his wife, daughter and mother, with the adults often being roughed by officials and his daughter searched and harassed.

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