The State Department insists that blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. Embassy of his own volition Wednesday and that U.S. officials in Beijing did not convey threats to harm his family by Chinese officials, as Chen claims.
"At no time did any US official speak to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children. Nor did Chinese officials make any such threats to us," said State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. "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 [their home in] Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for reunification."
Nuland was responding to accounts by Chen supporters, now repeated by Chen himself to the Associated Press, that said Chen was pressured into leaving the embassy via threats to the safety of his wife and family. Chen told the AP that U.S. officials told him the Chinese would take his family back to their home province in Shandong, where they had been under extrajudicial house arrest and in some cases physically abused, if he didn't leave the embassy.
Chen also said a U.S. official told him the Chinese government would beat his wife to death if he didn't leave the embassy and agree to the terms of the deal struck by U.S. and Chinese negotiators, according to the AP's account.
The State Department disputed that version of events.
"I was there. Chen made the decision to leave the Embassy after he knew his family was safe and at the hospital waiting for him, and after twice being asked by Ambassador Locke if he [was] ready to go," said Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who was a key negotiator in the deal. "He said, ‘zou,' -- let's go. We were all there as witnesses to his decision, and he hugged and thanked us all."
The deal, detailed by Foreign Policy's Editor Susan Glasser from Beijing, included a reunion between Chen and his family at a hospital where he could receive attention to the foot he damaged by scaling a wall during his daring escape last week.
The deal also stipulates that the Chinese government would treat Chen and his family humanely, that they would be relocated, and that Chen would be allowed to study at a university. Senior administration officials told reporters in a background briefing in Beijing that Chen called Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from the car to the hospital and said, "I want to kiss you."
Glasser noted that Zeng Jinyan, the wife of well-known activist Hu Jia, contradicted that account on Twitter, saying Chen told her he had asked to "see" Clinton, not to kiss her.
Clinton, in a statement, said, "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."
Chen, according to the AP, said that it was true he had expressed his desire to stay in China. But now that U.S. officials have left him alone in his hospital room, he is having second thoughts.
"I think we'd like to rest in a place outside of China," he said. He then asked to relay a message to Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ). "Help my family and I leave safely."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.