(CBS/AP) BEIJING - U.S. officials said Thursday they are still trying to help a blind Chinese activist who says he fears for his family's safety, and denied he was pressured to leave the American Embassy to resettle inside China.
Chen Guangcheng is at the center of a diplomatic dispute between Washington and Beijing that is especially sensitive for the Obama administration because it does not want to appear unwilling to press China on human rights issues during an election year.
After fleeing persecution by local officials in his rural town and seeking refuge in the embassy in Beijing for six days, Chen left Wednesday to get treatment for a leg injury at a Beijing hospital and to be reunited with his family. U.S. officials said the Chinese government had agreed to resettle him in a university town of his choice.
Chris Johnson, who until two weeks ago was the CIA's top China analyst, told CBS News that the deal was likely to break down and was therefore a mistake for the Americans to make.
"In terms of trying to somehow negotiate with the Chinese a means to guarantee his safety within China, there's just too much chance that the Chinese regime would renege and then the administration would look terrible," Johnson said.
Chen initially said he had assurances that he would be safe in China which is what U.S. officials said he wanted but hours later said he feared for his family's safety unless they are all spirited abroad.
Speaking on the phone Thursday to Britain's Sky News from his hospital room, Chen said he was unable to obtain information from his network of supporters while inside the U.S. Embassy, but once he left he learned that Chinese authorities had allegedly installed surveillance equipment and an electric fence around his home. (Click here for Sky's interview with Chen)
"Now, I know more, and I have changed my mind" about remaining in China, he told Sky's Holly Williams, who tells "CBS This Morning" that Chen sounded as though he had genuinely become very concerned for the safety of his family.
Chen told Sky he didn't blame U.S. officials for his predicament, but added that if he could speak to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or President Obama directly, he would ask them to do something concrete to protect him now.
Chen said on Wednesday through friends that he had felt pressured to leave the embassy.
"We asked him was he ready to leave. He jumped up very excited and said 'let's go' in front of many many witnesses," Locke said.Locke said U.S. officials had spoken twice to Chen Thursday and were continuing to try and assess his needs.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Thursday that further contacts with Chen and his wife show that "his view of what the best thing for him and his family may be changing."
The official said the U.S. side was seeking to find out if Chen and his wife had a change of heart about his earlier decision to stay in China.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry signaled its unhappiness with the entire affair, demanding that the U.S. apologize for giving Chen sanctuary at the embassy. (Watch thereport at left on China's displeasure with the way the U.S. handled this case.)
"What the U.S. side should do now is neither to continue misleading the public and making every excuse to shift responsibility and conceal its wrongdoing, nor to interfere in the domestic affairs of China," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said late Wednesday in a statement that was a response to comments from Clinton praising the deal on Chen.
The dispute overshadowed the opening of annual talks Thursday between China and the United States attended by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who said in a speech that China must protect human rights, in remarks that rejected Beijing's criticism of the U.S. for getting involved in Chen's case.
Chen, 40, became an international human rights figure and inspiration to many ordinary Chinese after running afoul of local government officials for exposing forced abortions carried out as part of China's one-child policy. He served four years in prison on what supporters said were fabricated charges, then was kept under house arrest with his wife, daughter and mother, with the adults often being roughed up by officials and his daughter searched and harassed.
Blinded by childhood fever but intimately familiar with the terrain of his village, Chen slipped from his guarded farmhouse in eastern China's Shandong province at night on April 22. He made his way through fields and forest, along roads and across a narrow river to meet the first of several supporters who helped bring him to Beijing and the embassy. It took three days for his guards to realize he was gone.