Blind activist’s wish to live abroad poses threat to US-China relations

Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng wants to leave China with his family, the US confirmed yesterday.

Officials had spoken twice to Chen and also his wife and “they as a family have had a change of heart about whether they want to stay in China”, said one. A State Department spokeswoman said they need to talk more with Chen to decide on options.

Chen spent six days in the US Embassy in Beijing after fleeing house arrest in his rural town where he his activism had angered local officials.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

He emerged on Wednesday when US officials said they had an agreement with China for him to set up a life in another province.

Chen was taken for treatment for a leg injury at a Beijing hospital before being reunited with his family.

He initially said that he had assurances that he would be safe in China but hours later he said he feared for his family’s safety unless they were spirited abroad. He also said he felt pressured to leave the embassy.#

US ambassador Gary Locke rejected the pressure claims, saying “unequivocally” that Chen was never pressed to go.

The revelations deepened the diplomatic predicament for the Obama administration as Chen’s still unresolved fate threatened to erode already shaky trust between Washington and Beijing as governments try to contain their ever- sharper jostling for influence around the world.

His case hovered over yesterday’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.

China had expressed anger that the US harboured an activist as Beijing sees as its right the authority to restrict its citizens’ movements. The Foreign Ministry called the affair meddling in domestic matters.

Should Beijing agree to negotiate, talks will have to decide if Chen leaves China as a visiting scholar — an indication his stay in the US would be temporary — and whether China would let him return at any time.