Clinton leaves China as dissident Chen awaits departure

BEIJING Sat May 5, 2012 2:34am EDT

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner leave the stage of a news conference in Beijing May 4, 2012. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner leave the stage of a news conference in Beijing May 4, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

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BEIJING (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left Beijing on Saturday after a tense week of negotiations with China over the fate of blind rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who plans to travel to the United States under a deal to end the standoff.

Despite some speculation that Chen might fly out on the same plane as Clinton, the 40-year-old activist remained in the Beijing hospital he went to on Wednesday from the U.S. embassy, where he had taken refuge after a dramatic escape from 19 months under house arrest in his home village.

In a sign the dispute over the activist, which threatened to worsen difficult China-U.S. ties, might be easing, China indicated on Friday Chen would be allowed to go to the United States to study.

Later, in an interview with Radio Free Asia, Chen said he did not plan to leave his homeland for good.

"This isn't saying that when I leave it's a one-off and there's no coming back," Chen told the Washington-based news service.

"Nobody should think that I'm emigrating or anything like that. As they (the Chinese government) have recognized that I'm free, then I should also have the freedom to go where I want."

It is not clear how soon and how smoothly Chen will pass through China's procedures that would allow him to travel, and even with Washington cautiously welcoming the proposed deal, some of his supporters said they remained under house arrest or under heavy police watch.

Human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong said both his ears were injured, and his left eardrum seemed to have ruptured, after police officers beat him about the head after he went to the Chaoyang Hospital in a bid to visit Chen.

"The worrying problem is that I haven't been allowed out of my home to see a doctor and check how serious this is," Jiang told Reuters by telephone from his home. "The state security police have told me to wait while they ask if I can go to a hospital, and there's been no answer."

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday that Chen could apply to study abroad followed his dramatic appeal to a U.S. congressional hearing on his case, when he asked to be allowed to spend time in the United States after escaping extra-judicial captivity in his home village and hiding in the U.S. embassy in Beijing for six days.

Chen left the embassy under a deal that foresaw him staying in China to study at a university. But Chen, beset by worries about the safety of his family and his own tenuous freedom, then changed his mind and said he wanted to go to the United States.

"MISTAKE"

Clinton, who was in Beijing for strategic and economic talks, said the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, Gary Locke, had spoken to Chen on Friday and had confirmed that Chen planned to go to the United States.

Chen had complained that after he entered the Beijing hospital, U.S. officials were not allowed to meet him.

U.S. officials have said they now expect American diplomats and doctors to have regular access to Chen, who won fame by campaigning against forced abortions under China's "one-child" policy and other abuses experienced by rural residents.

Any more ructions with China over Chen could embolden American critics of the Obama administration's China policies. They already seized on Chen's pleas for safety and criticism of U.S. diplomats, which he later retracted as the result of misunderstandings.

"U.S. officials made a mistake by escorting Chen away from the safety of the U.S. embassy and into an uncertain fate," said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee, in an emailed comment. "We cannot assume that this saga has been resolved."

The lawyer Jiang, who campaigned for Chen's freedom, said Chen was right to leave with his family, but his departure would nonetheless be a victory for "hardliners" in the government.

"This has been a victory for the law-breakers, because Chen Guangcheng and his family saw how the agreement that would have allowed him to stay wasn't going to be honored. They avoided facing that test," said Jiang. "This is ultimately a set-back for rule of law."

In 2006, Chen was sentenced to more than four years in jail on charges, vehemently denied by his wife and lawyers, that he whipped up a crowd that disrupted traffic and damaged property.

He was formally released in 2010 but remained under stifling house arrest in his home Dongshigu Village, which officials turned into a virtual fortress of walls, security equipment and aggressive guards in plain clothes.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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