Chen Guangcheng's friend Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid, told a congressional commission Thursday that Chen only agreed to leave the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after U.S. officials conveyed a threat from the Chinese government that Chen would never see his wife again if he didn't leave the embassy that day.
Fu has been in contact with Chen directly throughout the ordeal and told the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) today that he had spoken to Chen Wednesday night as Chen and his family remained in a Beijing hospital, unable to leave or receive visitors. U.S. officials have insisted that Chen left the embassy of his own volition after agreeing to the terms of a deal U.S. officials struck with the Chinese government.
But Fu said Chen's real motivation was fear.
"According to my conversations last night with Mr. Chen," Fu testified, "the U.S. officials relayed to Chen a message from the Chinese side that they would harm his wife. And it was in response to this threat that Chen reluctantly agreed to leave the embassy."
He continued: "Chen was talked to by a U.S. government official before he left the embassy and he was told it was a Chinese government message, that the Chinese government wanted to convey the message through the U.S. government official that if he did not leave the embassy on May 2, he will not be able to see his wife and children again."
"Chen said, after hearing that message from the Chinese government, conveyed by U.S. officials, his heart was heavy and he felt he had no other choice but to walk out of the U.S. embassy," said Fu.
U.S. officials deny that they conveyed any physical or legal threats to Chen. In a statement issued Wednesday and repeated Thursday by the White House, however, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland acknowledged, "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."
Chen may have interpreted those comments as an implicit threat, observers said.
According to Fu, after Chen arrived at the hospital, he heard from his wife that she was abused in recent days at their Shandong home. She was tied to a chair and beaten, Fu said. Upon hearing that, Chen no longer had faith in the Chinese government to honor any deal to keep his family safe and decided to plea for U.S. assistance in leaving China.
"The interrogator told her that if her husband did not walk out of the U.S. Embassy, they would kill her. It should be clear to anyone who uses logic that constitutes a threat," Fu said, adding that Chen has not asked for "amnesty" per se but wants to leave China.
"Secretary Clinton, at least deliver what you have promised and repeatedly said over the last two years: that you want to see Chen and his family in freedom and safety," Fu said.
In an interview with CBS, U.S. Amb. to China Gary Locke said that the United States had worked hard to negotiate a package of concessions from the Chinese government, and that Chen was enthusiastic about the arrangement. Locke also said that Chen's wife and children were brought to Beijing at Chen's request.
"Why can't the Chinese just do something first as a sign of good faith? Why must I trust them to do various things after I leave the Embassy?" Chen told U.S. officials, according to Locke. "Why can't they bring the family from the village to the hospital first so that I can know that they're safe, so I can talk to them on the phone? And if, after that conversation, I'm satisfied, I will leave the embassy and rejoin them."
Locke said that Chen was never pressured to leave the embassy, never expressed a desire to leave China when at the embassy, and rejected other offers from the Chinese government before eventually agreeing to the final offer.
"We were able to get the Chinese government to offer an unprecedented package of care for him -- family reunification. He hadn't seen his son in over two years. They were going to give him a full scholarship at one of seven universities of his choosing with full housing and living expenses for him and his family, and they would conduct an investigation of the abuses that he had suffered," Locke said. "If he had stayed in the embassy, his family still would have been in the village where they have suffered abuse."
Nevertheless, Locke noted that Chen was obviously having a change of heart and said that U.S. officials were working Thursday to determine Chen's wishes and how they could assist him. Chen's wife came out of the hospital to meet with U.S. officials Thursday and officials have had two conversations with Chen over the phone, Locke said.
Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told The Cable that the U.S. government had no choice but to relay the Chinese government's implicit threat to Chen and allow Chen to use that information to make the best decision for him and his family.
"The State Department said there was a particular threat made that they duly informed him about. They did what they had to do in conveying that to Chen," he said. "It would have been wrong if it was the case that they pressed him on that basis in one direction or another, but I don't have any information that they did."
The CECC is chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), the congressman to whom Chen appealed directly for help Wednesday after saying he felt abandoned by the U.S. government. At today's hearing, Smith referred to Chen's comments in an interview with CNN from his hospital bed, during which he said that administration officials lobbied him repeatedly to leave the embassy, kept him from communicating with friends, and reneged on promises to stay with him at the hospital.
"I'm very disappointed in the U.S. government. I don't think U.S. officials protected human rights in this case," Chen said in the interview. (In a more recent interview with the network, Chen chalked some of his earlier comments up to a "misunderstanding.")
Smith said he intends to hold another hearing on the issue next week with U.S. officials.
"Chen's comments portray the U.S. as manipulating him, cutting him off from outside communication, and encouraging him to leave the embassy rather than seek asylum," said Smith. "He said he was denied requests to call friends. He said he felt the embassy officials had lied to him."
There are several questions left unanswered, Smith said, including: How will the U.S. enforce the agreement with the Chinese government on Chen? What happens if Chen or his family suffer retaliation? Where is Chen's nephew Chen Kegui? What happens now to He Peirong, the woman who drove Chen to the embassy?
Smith detailed Chen's fight against alleged abuses of China's family planning laws in Shandong and the abuses he and his wife have endured at the hands of Chinese officials, including beatings and various other forms of intimidation. CECC has been documenting these abuses in detail and held a hearing about Chen's case last November.
"Hu Jia, a human rights and environmental advocate, and Chen Guangcheng, a self-trained legal advocate who publicized population planning abuses, were released from prison this year only to face, along with their families, onerous conditions of detention and abuse with little or no basis in Chinese law," CECC's 2011 Annual Report stated. "In Chen's case, authorities kept him and his wife under extralegal house arrest and allegedly beat them after video footage of their conditions was smuggled out of the house and released on an overseas Web site."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.