After six days holed up in the U.S. Embassy, as senior officials in Beijing and Washington tussled over his fate, Chen Guangcheng left the compound's protective confines Wednesday for a nearby hospital for treatment of a leg injury suffered in his escape. A shaken Chen told The Associated Press from his hospital room that Chinese authorities has warned him he would lose his opportunity to be reunited with his family if he stayed longer in the embassy.
U.S. officials verified that account. But they adamantly denied his contention that one American diplomat had warned him of a threat from the Chinese that his wife would be beaten to death if he did not get out of the embassy.
"I think we'd like to rest in a place outside of China," Chen told the AP, appealing again for help in Washington. "Help my family and me leave safely."
Only hours earlier, U.S. officials said they had extracted from the Chinese government a promise that Chen would join his family and be allowed to start a new life in a university town in China, safe from the rural authorities who had abusively held him in prison ad house arrest for nearly seven years.
That announcement had been timed to clear up the matter before strategic and economic meetings start Thursday between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts—and to show the U.S. standing firm in its defense of human rights in China while engaging on other issues.
Clinton spoke to Chen on the phone when he left the embassy and, in a statement, welcomed the resettlement agreement as one that "reflected his choices and our values."
But the murky circumstances of Chen's departure from the embassy, and his sudden appeal to leave China after declaring he wanted to stay, again threatened to overshadow talks that were to focus on the global economic crisis and hotspots such as North Korea, Iran, Syria and Sudan.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry signaled its unhappiness with the entire affair, demanding that the U.S. apologize for giving Chen sanctuary at the embassy.
"What the U.S. side has done has interfered in the domestic affairs of China, and the Chinese side will never accept it," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a statement.
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 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—his guards unaware for three days that he was gone.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner disputed Chen's claim that he was left alone by the Americans at the hospital.
"There were U.S. officials in the building," the spokesman told reporters. "I believe some of his medical team was in fact with him at the hospital." He said U.S. officials would continue visiting Chen while he was there.
Chen's supporters in the U.S. called on Clinton to meet him directly, and one of them, Republican Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey, said it appeared the resettlement agreement "seems to have been done under significant duress."
"If ever there was a test of the U.S. commitment to human rights, it should have been at that moment, potentially sending him back to a very real threat," he said.
But no one appeared to know precisely what to make of Chen's change of heart. He had welcomed a deal that let him stay in China and work for change, telling his lawyer Li Jinsong on the way to the hospital, "I'm free, I've received clear assurances," according to Li.
Toner said three U.S. officials heard Chen tell Clinton in broken English on the phone that he wanted to kiss her in gratitude. Chen told the AP that he actually told Clinton, "I want to see you now."
Nor is it clear how the U.S. could be party to an agreement on Chen's safety inside China when it has no power to enforce the conditions of his life there.
Ai Xiaoming, a documentary filmmaker and activist, said the Chinese government fails to ensure people's rights, so the best solution would be for Chen and his family to go to America.
"In the first place, Chen Guangcheng should not have to ask a foreign country to protect his rights," Ai said. "His rights should be protected by his own country, through the constitution. But it is obvious that this cannot be done."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said no U.S. official said anything to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children. Nor did the Chinese relay any such threats to American diplomats, she said. She did confirm that if he did not leave the embassy the Chinese intended to return his family to their home province of Shandong, where they had been detained and beaten by local officials, and that they would lose any chance of being reunited.
"At every opportunity, he expressed his desire to stay in China, reunify with his family, continue his education and work for reform in his country," Nuland said. "All our diplomacy was directed at putting him in the best possible position to achieve his objectives."
Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor who is advising Chen at the State Department's request, said there was never any explicit discussion of a threat against Chen's wife.
"There was no indication in four or five hours of talks that he knew of any threat to her life," Cohen said.
Senior U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the intense negotiations that led to Chen leaving the embassy, said the U.S. helped Chen get into the embassy because he injured his leg escaping from his village. In the embassy, Chen did not request safe passage out of China or asylum in the U.S., the officials said.
U.S. officials said the deal called for Chen to settle outside his home province of Shandong and have several university options to choose from. They also said the Chinese government had promised to treat Chen "like any other student in China" and to investigate allegations of abuse against him and his family by local authorities.
Clinton said the U.S. would monitor China's assurances. "Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task," she said.
Associated Press writers Charles Hutzler, Gillian Wong, Bradley Klapper and Cara Anna contributed to this report.