BEIJING — After a daring escape, four grueling days of secret negotiations and a deal struck between the world’s two leading powers, blind activist Chen Guangcheng found himself isolated in a central Beijing hospital on Friday as Chinese guards barred U.S. diplomats, journalists and supporters from seeing him.
In a telephone interview early Friday, Chen said he does not blame American officials for his plight after leaving the U.S. Embassy under a deal they helped strike. But he accused Chinese officials of reneging on their promises to fully restore his freedom.
A few hours later, he made a dramatic call into a congressional hearing, telling lawmakers in Washington through the cellphone of a human rights activist that he wanted to travel to the United States to rest and that he was most worried about “the safety of my mother and my brothers.”
Chen said he wanted to travel to the United States, but only temporarily, perhaps to study. “It’s not a one-time-only decision,” Chen told the Washington Post from his hospital room. “It doesn’t mean I won’t come back. As a free person, I believe I am endowed with the right to leave China when I want to and come back anytime I want.”
China’s foreign ministry said Friday that if the well-known activist wanted to leave the country to study, he had to apply through the Chinese government like other ordinary citizens.
“Chen Guangcheng is currently being treated in hospital,” the spokesman, Liu Weimin, said in a statement. “If he wants to study abroad, he can apply through normal channels to the relevant departments, according to the law, just like any other Chinese citizen.”
With the fate of Chen and his family uncertain, the Obama administration drew sharp criticism Thursday for its handling of the crisis.
U.S. officials expressed concern and frustration at not being able to meet with Chen. But granting him any assistance — much less safe passage to the United States — has grown far more complex and difficult since his departure from the U.S. Embassy on Wednesday, six days after escaping de facto house arrest in his village.
Once Chen left the sovereign soil of the embassy, the leverage of U.S. officials went with him. Now he is under the control of Chinese authorities, who on Thursday blocked all access to the activist.
“We haven’t had either a diplomat or a doctor in to see him,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid. “There’s plenty of anxiety about what’s going on.” The official said that U.S. diplomats had extraordinary difficulties even trying to telephone Chen on Thursday and that their two calls with him were extremely brief, with one cut off after just seconds. Lacking direct access to Chen, U.S. officials met his wife, Yuan Weijing, outside the hospital.
A senior State Department official said U.S. Embassy personnel again spoke with Chen and met with his wife late Friday morning.
According to U.S. officials, Chen had previously insisted that he wanted to remain in China. But U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke said Thursday that “it’s apparent now that he’s had a change of heart.”
Chen, in the interview, clarified reports portraying him as pleading for asylum, insisting that he wants to travel to the United States only temporarily, retaining the freedom to return to China.
Some Republicans and human rights advocates have accused the Obama administration of mismanaging Chen’s case, saying it was too trusting of the Chinese government, given its history of mistreating dissidents.
“Our embassy failed to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would have assured the safety of Mr. Chen and his family,” said Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. “If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom, and it’s a day of shame for the Obama administration.”
For China, the crisis falls into an ongoing struggle between increasingly visible reform-minded moderates within the Communist Party and hard-liners who emphasize security and stability at any cost.
Some analysts saw Chinese officials’ quick acceptance of Wednesday’s deal as a sign of the reform faction’s sway. In many ways, China’s apparent willingness to give assurances to a foreign country about how it would treat one of its citizens was exceedingly rare.
But the deal’s rapid unraveling could, instead, boost hard-liners.
“The collateral damage here is substantial,” said Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “If there was a debate on the Chinese side on whether to negotiate, this certainly isn’t good for those who pushed for the deal.”
At the hospital Thursday, police harshly treated journalists and a small number of Chen’s supporters who tried to see him in his first-floor room. On Friday, more supporters reported being beaten and detained by police for going to the hospital to try to visit Chen.