With the fate of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and his family uncertain, the Obama administration drew sharp criticism Thursday for its handling of the crisis.
BEIJING — After a daring escape, four grueling days of secret negotiations and a deal struck between the world’s two leading powers, dissident Chen Guangcheng found himself isolated in a central Beijing hospital Friday as Chinese guards barred U.S. diplomats, journalists and supporters from seeing him.
In a telephone interview early Friday, Chen said he does not blame U.S. officials for his plight, but he accused Chinese officials of reneging on their promises to fully restore his freedom.
A few hours later, he called a congressional hearing, telling lawmakers in Washington, D.C., through the cellphone of a human-rights activist that he wanted to travel to the United States to rest and that he was most worried about “the safety of my mother and my brothers.”
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Later, China’s Foreign Ministry said that Chen can apply to study abroad, possibly opening the door to resolving a diplomatic standoff with the United States.
The ministry said in a statement on its website that Chen would be allowed to apply to study overseas “in accordance with laws of relevant departments.” It did not immediately give details.
The ministry statement was the most positive response so far from the Chinese side.
With the fate of Chen and his family uncertain, the Obama administration drew sharp criticism Thursday for its handling of the crisis.
U.S. officials expressed concern and frustration at not being able to meet with Chen. But granting him any assistance — much less safe passage to the U.S. — has grown far more complex and difficult since his departure from the U.S. Embassy on Wednesday, six days after escaping house arrest in his village.
Once Chen left the sovereign soil of the embassy, the leverage of U.S. officials went with him. Now he is under the control of Chinese authorities, who on Thursday blocked all access to the activist.
“We haven’t had either a diplomat or a doctor in to see him,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official said U.S. diplomats had extraordinary difficulties even trying to telephone Chen on Thursday and their two calls with him were extremely brief. Lacking direct access to Chen, U.S. officials met his wife, Yuan Weijing, outside the hospital.
According to U.S. officials, Chen had previously insisted he wanted to remain in China. But U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke said Thursday that “it’s apparent now that he’s had a change of heart.”
Chen, in the interview, clarified reports portraying him as pleading for asylum, insisting that he wants to travel to the U.S. only temporarily, retaining the freedom to return to China.
Some Republicans and human-rights advocates have accused the Obama administration of mismanaging Chen’s case, saying it was too trusting of the Chinese government, given its history of mistreating dissidents.
“Our embassy failed to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would have assured the safety of Mr. Chen and his family,” said Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. “If these reports are true … it’s a day of shame for the Obama administration.”
Chen’s case overshadowed Thursday’s opening of a two-day U.S.-China summit that included Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
Both sides were careful not to mention Chen’s case specifically. But from his hospital room, Chen managed to thrust himself into the center of the stage-managed diplomacy when he told interviewers he wanted to fly to the United States with Clinton when she leaves Saturday. U.S. officials and analysts, however, said privately that that appeared unlikely.
His apparent change of heart about where he wants to live has made the tense diplomatic episode especially difficult. More details emerged Thursday about what might have prompted his abrupt shift.
From the time he entered the fortified U.S. Embassy compound April 26, Chen insisted that he wanted to remain in China and be reunited with his wife, said Locke and other officials.
Under the original deal reached with Chinese officials, according to U.S. diplomats, the self-taught lawyer was to be allowed to move his family to the Beijing area and begin a new life as a university student.
But after Chen was taken in an embassy van to Chaoyang Hospital, he had his first extended telephone conversations with friends and allies, as well as his attorney, Teng Biao. Teng later posted the transcript of his Wednesday conversation with Chen in which he told Chen about the arrest of his relatives and some activists who aided in his escape from Shandong province. Teng then asked Chen whether any U.S. diplomats remained with him at the hospital.
“No, they’ve all gone,” Chen replied, according to the transcript. “They said they would accompany me all the way, but now they’ve all gone.”
Teng said, “Then you’re in a really dangerous situation!”
In his brief interview early Friday, Chen sounded relaxed and full of energy. He said he was being treated well and he, his wife and their two children were left alone together in one room.
But he said armed thugs have taken over his farmhouse in Dongshigu village, and he was concerned about other members of his family, with whom he has not been able to speak.
“My biggest wish right now is that the agreement concerning me is fulfilled well,” Chen said. “The agreement includes more than three points, including the U.S. side being able to visit me regularly, and China should guarantee my rights as a citizen.”
Post staff writers Jia Lynn Yang and Emily Heil and researchers Zhang Jie and Liu Liu contributed to this report.