(CBS/AP) BEIJING - The Obama administration's diplomatic predicament deepened Thursday when a blind Chinese legal activist who took refuge in the American Embassy told the U.S. he now wants to go abroad, rejecting a deal that was supposed to keep him safely in China.
Only hours after Chen Guangcheng left the embassy for a hospital checkup and reunion with his family, he began telling friends and foreign media they feel threatened and want to go abroad. At first taken aback at the reversal, the State Department said officials spoke twice by phone with Chen and met with his wife, with both affirming their desire to leave.
"They as a family have had a change of heart about whether they want to stay in China," department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
Nuland stopped short of saying whether Washington would try to reopen negotiations to get Chen abroad should Beijing agree. "We need to consult with them further to get a better sense of what they want to do and consider their options," Nuland said.
Gary Locke, the American ambassador to China, defended the U.S.'s handling of Chen's case, saying that during their initial discussions, Chen "did not want to go to the United States so the choice was to help him get back into China to be a freedom fighter as he wanted."
Chen's still unresolved fate threatens to erode already shaky trust between Washington and Beijing at a time both governments are trying to contain their ever sharper jostling for influence around the world. His case hovered over Thursday's opening of two-day talks on global political and economic hotspots led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts.
Chen remained in the hospital, where he was being treated for a leg injury, its grounds ringed by a noticeable police presence, making it unclear how his exit could be arranged, and receiving medical tests.
A self-taught lawyer, Chen, 40, spent most of the last seven years in prison or under house arrest in what was seen as retribution by local authorities for his advocacy against forced abortions and other official misdeeds. His wife, daughter and mother were confined at home with him, enduring beatings, searches and other mistreatment.
His escape from house arrest to the fortress-like U.S. Embassy last week inserted Washington in the center of a human rights case, always a testy issue for Beijing, and at the same time potentially embarrassed Chinese leaders that the country is unable to protect its own citizens.
Chen's goal, he told U.S. officials, was to secure the safety of his family and remain in China. Under painstaking arrangements negotiated over days, he was to be reunited with his family and relocated outside his home province to a university town where he could formally study law.
But later, in the hospital, Chen felt abandoned by the U.S., finding no embassy staff had stayed behind to assure his protection. His wife, Yuan Weijing who is staying with him along with his daughter and a son who has been raised by relatives in recent years began describing the rough interrogation she received once his escape became known and the fight his nephew got involved in when confronted by officials. Chen said he changed his mind, fearing for their safety if they remained in China.
"Yuan Weijing met him and told him what happened to his family, and that his family was tied to chairs and interrogated by police, and that his nephew attacked somebody and is on the run outside and might be in life-threatening dangers," said Li Jinsong, his lawyer. "These things undoubtedly have left an impact on him."