BEIJING -- Radically differing accounts of the circumstances under which crusading Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng left the protection of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing had critics of the plan wondering Wednesday whether the U.S. officials whod brokered the deal planned poorly or were tragically naive.
After a round of optimistic State Department briefings and statements in which officials said the authoritarian Chinese government had given its word that it would ensure Chens safety, allegations surfaced that the self-taught lawyer had agreed to leave the embassy only because he thought that his family essentially was being held hostage.
A close friend said in a series of online Twitter postings that Chen, whos been blind since childhood, had contacted her and said hed left U.S. custody out of fear for his wifes safety. Chen had been willing to leave China if his family couldve accompanied him, Zeng Jinyan wrote.
Zeng wasnt reachable by phone Wednesday evening, though her husband, who was traveling, said hed spoken with her and had 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, whos also a Chen confidant.
The Associated Press reported that Chen himself told one of its reporters that hed decided to depart the embassy after six days of hiding when a U.S. official told him that Chinese authorities had threatened to beat his wife to death if he remained.
If some or all of the 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. Republican members of Congress have been critical of the administrations policies toward China, saying the administration hasnt taken a strong enough stand against the communist governments persistent abuse of its critics.
A statement released Wednesday by the China Aid Association, a U.S.-based Christian human-rights group thats in regular contact with Chen, said "relevant reports show unfortunately the U.S. side has abandoned Mr. Chen."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland denied in a statement Wednesday that U.S. officials had spoken with Chen about physical threats to his family or that Chinese officials had made any.
However, she acknowledged that, 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.
For Chen, whos said that he and his wife had been beaten severely in their home province, that message probably carried the certainty that his family would be harmed if he didnt allow himself to be given to the Chinese government. In a video recorded last week after he successfully fled house arrest in Shandong province in eastern China, Chen said that during his 19 months of captivity his wife was assaulted so badly that she suffered a broken bone near her left eye and serious damage to her ribs and lower back.
Earlier in the day Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had issued a statement lauding Chinas guarantee of Chens safety.