Chen says U.S. diplomats, friends are still barred from visiting him

May 6, 2012

Chen Guangcheng, the self-taught lawyer who has become the center of a diplomatic crisis between the United States and China, said Sunday that he has not been able to have a face-to-face meeting with American diplomats since Friday and that his friends and supporters, as well as journalists, are being barred from the hospital where he is confined.

Chen also said he is waiting for central government authorities in Beijing to make good on their promise to have armed thugs removed from his village, Dongshigu, in China’s eastern Shandong province. He said that when he last checked, the thugs had left his farmhouse but were still in the village.

In a telephone interview Sunday, the blind activist said he is confined to bed, still recovering from foot injuries he incurred during his dramatic escape from house arrest on April 22. He is also suffering from enteritis, an inflammation of the intestine. Chen said he will have to wait until he is healthy before he can travel, saying, “I don’t think I will go to the U.S. very soon.”

Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Vice President Biden struck an optimistic tone, saying that Chen’s “future is in America.” Noting that Chinese officials have assured U.S. diplomats that they would cooperate with Chen’s effort to go abroad, he added, “We expect the Chinese to stick to that commitment.”

Chen said his wife and children have not been allowed to leave the hospital. He has been able to speak to U.S. diplomats only by phone, he said, but his family members have seen American officials as they begin the process that they hope will soon allow Chen, his wife and children to travel to the United States.

“I only met a U.S. diplomat and the U.S. doctor the day before yesterday,” Chen said in the 15-minute interview. “We discussed my health condition briefly. The meeting was very short, so we didn’t talk about other things.”

U.S. officials initially reported that they had secured a deal with the Chinese government to allow American diplomats continued access to Chen. “The central government promised that the U.S. can see me every day,” Chen said. “It’s no use if they just make good promises without living up to them.”

A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Sunday: “We spoke to Chen and his wife several times today. We met his wife at the hospital yesterday.”

Chen’s attorney, Li Jinsong, also interviewed Sunday, said he was confident that Chen’s situation would be resolved quickly. But he suggested that Chen’s supporters should remain low-key and not push too aggressively in public, to avoid embarrassing Chinese authorities and provoking a backlash from Communist Party hard-liners who might oppose the tacit deal allowing Chen to leave for the United States.

“The political environment right now is quite similar to the environment in 1989,” the time of the Tiananmen Square student demonstrations, Li said. “There are some people in the system with a conscience. They are making efforts to improve the system.”

“If you do or say something too radical, you only help the hard-liners or conservatives, who can use it as an excuse to attack those with a conscience. And that, in the end, will hurt Chen,” Li said.

Chen expressed frustration that his friends, allies and attorney have not been allowed inside the hospital to see him. “Visiting me should be nothing inappropriate,” Chen said. “I know the hospital has its rules. But the number of visitors could be limited — for example, two or three at one time.”

“It’s time for the government to be more open-minded,” he said.

Chen said he is still worried about the situation in his village in Shandong. One low-level government official “promised me to withdraw all the people in Shandong,” he said. “But when I called back home to check, they said the thugs just withdrew from my house, but they were still in the village.”

“It’s not clear if the central government and the local government are on the same page or not,” Chen said. “If the central government launches a public investigation, maintains respect for the law and punishes the people responsible, then it will be very clear that this was just an abuse of power by the local government. Otherwise, then it’s the orders from the central government. Let’s wait and see.”

Chen described his mood as “in general, pretty good.”

“Compared with my situation in the past, I really should feel happy now,” he said. “In the past, even eating was a problem. But I don’t know what will happen next. I just have to wait.”

Chen also explained why he at first appeared to accept a government offer to allow him to study at a university in Tianjin, close to Beijing, and then later decided he wanted to travel to the United States.

“I never said I wanted to study in Tianjin. I just said I wanted to study,” Chen said. “They gave me several options, including Tianjin. Choosing a school, and then changing my mind, that’s a part of a person’s freedom, isn’t it? I have the right to change my mind.”

Researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.

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