I've known Chen Guangcheng for more than a decade—he's been through intimidation, beatings, jail, and extralegal house arrest—but through it all I never sensed he was scared. Now he's scared. Chen, whose case has escalated into a bilateral crisis that threatens to dominate Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Beijing this week, was weeping as he talked to me over the phone from his hospital bed.
Chen says he now wants to leave China as soon as possible: "My fervent hope is that it would be possible for me and my family to leave for the U.S. on Hillary Clinton's plane."
When U.S. officials escorted him out of the U.S. embassy shortly after 3 p.m. Wednesday, Chen thought he'd extracted a promise that at least one of them would stay with him at the hospital, he said. "Many Americans were with me while I checked into the hospital and doctors examined me. Lots of them," he told me from his hospital bed, where he's being treated for broken bones in one foot, an injury sustained when he fell after climbing a wall during his daring escape from house arrest late last month. "But when I was brought to the hospital room, they all left. I don't know where they went." The ordeal was all the more bewildering because Chen is blind and was hurt during his escape; he needs crutches or a wheelchair to move around.
The hours ticked by, and Chen became more and more agitated. Even though he'd originally told friends and embassy officials that he wished to remain in China, now he wanted to leave. "I hope to seek medical treatment in the U.S. with my family, and then I want to rest," he said. "As for the future, we'll deal with that in the future." At the hospital, Chen's fears mounted as his wife told him she'd been tied to a chair, beaten, and interrogated by Chinese guards after they learned he had entered the U.S. embassy in Beijing last Friday.
Chen Guangcheng with U.S. officials on Wednesday, before leaving the U.S. embassy for a hospital in Beijing, US Embassy Beijing Press Office / AP Photos
As dinnertime came and went, he and his wife and two young children, who had traveled to Beijing, had nothing to eat. Their 6-year-old daughter began crying from the hunger pangs. "I kept asking the hospital personnel for some food, but it never came. I asked many times." Finally, around 9 p.m., some food was sent in after friends contacted American officials for help. But Chen says his numerous attempts to reach the U.S. embassy directly during those dark hours failed: "I tried to phone the embassy three or four times last night, but nobody answered." As of Thursday at 8:30 a.m. Beijing time, he said he has had no contact with American officials since after he entered his hospital room.
"I need your help, I'm absolutely, absolutely ready to fly out on Hillary Clinton's plane. Please tell the embassy what I'm saying."
At the embassy, Chen said he came under tremendous pressure from American officials—"not those from the embassy but others "—to leave the diplomatic facilityas quickly as possible. From the very beginning, he said, the assumption was that he would stay in China. "I had no information, I got no phone calls from friends, I was isolated," he told me, his voice trembling. "Then I heard about the threat that my wife would be sent back home to Shandong if I didn't leave the embassy. So I left."
He told me there was no explicit threat that she would be submitted to physical violence, "but nobody had to say it, I know what we've experienced all these years back in Shandong. Our home was surrounded by guards, lots of guards. Our friends weren't allowed to visit. If we tried to go out we'd be beaten, often with clubs." Security personnel had even escorted his young daughter to and from school; Chen and his wife hadn't seen their son for two years before their reunion at the hospital.
Human-rights activists are now extremely worried about Chen's fate, and some are astonished at this startling—and dark—turn of events. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had described Chen's departure as reflecting "his choices and our values"; State Department officials said Chen was asked several times if he was departing of his own volition and his reply was "Zou!" or "Let's go!" U.S. officials also said they had reached an understanding with Chinese authorities that Chen would be allowed to pursue his education in a location away from his home province of Shandong, to follow up on his work as a self-taught "barefoot lawyer".