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Activist Changes His Mind About Staying In China


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene.

U.S. officials may have been hoping to defuse a diplomatic crisis when they negotiated for a Chinese dissident to be transferred yesterday to a hospital. Trying to ease the tension with China was important because Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began high-level talks with Chinese officials today in Beijing. The hopes of U.S. officials may have been dashed. The Chinese human rights activist who spoke of remaining in China is now pleading for the United States to allow him to leave his country.

NPR's Louisa Lim spoke to him.

CHEN GUANGCHENG: (Foreign language spoken)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: This is a phone call Chen Guangcheng made to his lawyer Li Jinsong, as U.S. officials drove him to hospital yesterday.

GUANGCHENG: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: There are many people with me, Chen says, including Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state. Tell my friends to come to the hospital. I want them there to protect my citizen's rights. He's clearly nervous, but excited. He was heading, he hoped, to a new life, with assurances of safety, he believed, underwritten by the U.S.

GUANGCHENG: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Just 16 hours later, Chen Guangcheng's tone is totally different. Talking to NPR from his hospital bed early today, he is close to tears. He admits he wouldn't have left the embassy had he realized what was in store.

GUANGCHENG: (Through Translator) There are lots of problems, which means that I want to go to the U.S. as soon as possible for treatment. I hope Clinton can help get passports for me and my family.

LIM: He feels vulnerable, and he fears that his rights are not guaranteed. He began to worry after arriving at hospital, when he says his phone was tampered with, so he couldn't call people and could only receive calls intermittently. The high-profile U.S. escort disappeared, leaving him isolated. He hasn't been allowed to see a single friend.

Earlier, U.S. officials had passed on a Chinese message that his wife would be sent home if he didn't leave the embassy. When he finally met his wife, what she told him alarmed him even more.

GUANGCHENG: (Through Translator) I can't get in touch with my family in my village at all. I don't know what's happened to my mother. There are guards inside the yard, in all the rooms, even on the roof. They've set up lots of cameras in my home, and are preparing electric fences. They told my family they'd take wooden sticks and beat my family to death. So it's very unsafe.

LIM: Chen has already spent 19 months under house arrest, during which time he and his family have been brutally beaten and abused. He's already spent four years in jail, after angering local officials for exposing forced abortions.

Today, he told NPR he was disappointed in the U.S. government. He believes the high-level talks opening today added pressure on him to leave the embassy.

GUANGCHENG: (Through Translator) I feel that the U.S. government is not pressing hard enough on human rights. Their willingness to protect human rights is not strong enough. But I'm not disappointed in the American people. From the point of view of values, the U.S. still respects human rights, but the government sometimes places more weight on other factors.

LIM: Outside the hospital last night, a lawyer friend of his, Jiang Tianyong, was waiting in vain to meet Chen. But he was forbidden access. He doubts whether his friend can be safe in China.

JIANG TIANYONG: (Through Translator) I very much want him to leave China, because he has already done too much. His family has suffered too much.

LIM: Concerns have been raised that the U.S. acted too quickly in accepting Chinese assurances of Chen's safety, especially given the fact that a number of Chen's supporters are now missing, with at least one put under house arrest since last night.

Resulting crisis is damaging for all sides, according to Josh Rosenzweig, an independent human rights researcher in Hong Kong.

JOSH ROSENZWEIG: The only side in the negotiations that seemed to have enough information to make a decision about what they wanted to do was the Chinese government, although I think even they didn't foresee perhaps the way in which this event would change so rapidly and potentially create an even bigger public relations nightmare.

LIM: So the world's two superpowers remain locked into a diplomatic tussle. For now, at least, the immediate future of their ties could rest on the fate of one blind man in a hospital bed.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Beijing Correspondent Louisa Lim is currently attending the University of Michigan as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. She will return to her regular role in 2014.