BEIJING — A U.S.-brokered deal for crusading Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng to leave the protection of the American Embassy in Beijing appeared to be headed for disaster Wednesday night as allegations surfaced that he did so only because China's government used his family as hostages.
A close friend said in a series of online Twitter postings that Chen, who's been blind since childhood, had contacted her and said he'd abandoned the embassy out of fear for his wife's safety. Chen had been willing to leave China if his family could have accompanied him, Zeng Jinyan wrote.
Zeng wasn't reachable by phone Wednesday evening, though her husband, who was traveling, said he'd spoken with her and confirmed that the conversation with Chen had taken place.
"The (Chinese) authorities brought his wife to Beijing and said that he must leave (the embassy), so Guangcheng was forced to leave," said Hu Jia, who's also a Chen confidant.
The Associated Press reported that Chen himself told one of its reporters that he'd decided to depart the embassy after six days of hiding there when a U.S. official told him that Chinese authorities had threatened to beat his wife to death if he remained there.
If some or all of those assertions prove to be true, it would be a considerable blow to the Obama administration during an election year at home and, more broadly, to American standing in China. The basis of the deal — essentially trusting that the authoritarian government of Beijing wouldn't harm an activist if he were handed over — had struck many observers as badly misguided, if not naive.
State Department officials, however, gave a considerably different version of events.
Earlier in the day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement lauding China's guarantee of Chen's safety.
"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," Clinton said.
She added: "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."
In his escape from extrajudicial house detention on April 22, Chen had left behind his wife, daughter and mother. During a video Chen recorded last week, he said that during his 19 months of captivity in his home village in eastern China, he and his wife were subject to severe beatings at the hands of local police and officials.
"His friends are very worried about his safety. If he leaves the embassy, then his safety has no guarantee," said Teng Biao, a Beijing human rights lawyer and longtime colleague of Chen's.
Asked about Beijing's assurance of well-being for Chen, Teng replied: "I have no trust in it."
Contacted for comment, U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Buangan referred questions to the State Department in Washington, where spokeswoman Victoria Nuland denied that U.S. officials had spoken to Chen "about physical or legal threats to his wife and children" and said Chinese officials didn't "make any such threats to us."
"U.S. interlocutors did make clear that if Chen elected to stay in the embassy, Chinese officials had indicated to us that his family would be returned to Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for reunification," she said. "And at no point during his time in the embassy did Chen ever request political asylum in the U.S."
Earlier, a State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity as a condition for talking to reporters, said Chen was given the lead in making decisions about leaving the embassy.
"We respected Mr. Chen's free will, both his desire to depart the embassy, which he did ... of his own free will, and most fundamentally his consistently stated desire to stay and work in his own country and to continue his work."
The official, who was involved with the negotiations, said Ambassador Gary Locke had asked Chen, " 'Are you ready to go?' And he sat there and he said ... 'Let's go.' And he stood up and we walked out together."
A second State Department official at the briefing said, "Throughout his stay at the embassy — and I'm talking about numerous discussions — Mr. Chen made it clear that he wanted to remain in China with his family, and, frankly, he wanted to participate with what he thinks is ongoing in China, which is a very exciting, dynamic period that he believes that he has an important role to play, as do we."
Chen, 40, was delivered on Wednesday to a Beijing hospital, where he was treated for a foot injury he'd suffered when fleeing. Reporters who tried to speak with him there caught only a fleeting glimpse of Chen, a small man in a white shirt and sunglasses, being pushed down a corridor in a wheelchair. A large number of security officers then shoved the group of journalists into a holding pen — fashioned with gates and benches they'd dragged over — and took photographs of their identification cards before pushing them into elevators.
The move initially was seen as a possible solution to a major crisis between China and America about what would happen with the activist. Clinton is in Beijing for previously scheduled high-level meetings set to begin Thursday.
Chen had been sentenced to 51 months in prison in 2006 — on trumped-up charges of damaging property and assembling a crowd to block traffic — after he'd campaigned on behalf of women who'd undergone forced sterilizations and abortions amid a local government campaign to enforce China's one-child population control policy.
Upon being released from prison in September 2010, Chen was placed under home detention even though he hadn't been charged with any additional crimes.
After news of Chen's departure from the U.S. Embassy became public, the Chinese state news wire Xinhua said Wednesday that its government was demanding an apology from the Americans. It quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin as saying, "What the U.S. side has done has interfered in the domestic affairs of China, and the Chinese side will never accept it."
Many were dubious of the arrangement from the start.
"There is good reason for skepticism about whether the Chinese government is both willing and able to deliver on the conditional release of Chen Guangcheng from U.S. diplomatic protection to a 'safe' location in China, particularly since neither side has identified that location or defined how it will be safe for Chen and his family," Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said not long after the deal was announced.