Chinese officials, by contrast, broke their official silence on Chen by firing a broadside complaining about U.S. interference in China’s internal affairs. The Foreign Ministry demanded an apology, which State Department officials declined to give.
The confusing, chaotic episode coincided with a visit to China by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, who arrived in Beijing on Wednesday with an entourage of diplomatic and trade officials intent on smoothing relations and increasing economic and cultural ties.
The Obama administration wants greater cooperation from China on trade, currency rates, Iran oil sanctions and North Korean nuclear weapons, but with the Chen case, the issue of human rights threatens to overtake that agenda.
Chen’s case also quickly entered the presidential campaign. “I really love America,” Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, said at a Virginia fundraiser Wednesday night. “I love what it represents, and I love that a Chinese dissident who fled the policies in his country, I love where he went — to our embassy.”
Chen revived the human rights issue by escaping from de facto house arrest in his home village in Shandong province on April 22 and by seeking U.S. protection in the Chinese capital four days later. American officials said Wednesday that they accepted him at the embassy on humanitarian grounds.
A familiar name
Chen was already well-known to U.S. officials. According to WikiLeaks, between April 2007 and July 24, 2009, his name was included in at least 37 State Department cables. His was one of three “key cases” mentioned during the May 2008 resumption of the U.S.-China human rights dialogue after a six-year hiatus.
So U.S. officials were elated when the Chinese government said it would allow Chen and his family to move away from their village and pledged to investigate why authorities there allowed armed thugs in plainclothes to confine the activist and prevent others from seeing him.
But Teng Biao, Chen’s lawyer, said in an interview late Wednesday that he had spoken with Chen several times during the evening. “He felt his safety is threatened. He feels pressure now,” Teng said. “In fact, from his language, I can tell that the decision to leave the embassy was not 100 percent his idea.”