* China and U.S. say Chen left embassy of his own accord
* China demands an apology for U.S. ‘meddling’
* Lawyer calls Chen deal “daring, creative” gamble
* Clinton in Beijing for high-level talks
By Andrew Quinn and Chris Buckley
BEIJING, May 2 (Reuters) - Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Wednesday after days of negotiation between the two governments, but supporters said Chen agreed to the deal reluctantly after his family were threatened with reprisals.
The terms of the deal announced by U.S. officials, including a commitment to allow Chen to be relocated within China with his family and to study at a university, will keep him as a pivotal figure in China-U.S. relations. But initial statements from Beijing indicated the case would remain a source of contention.
Chen’s dramatic escape from house arrest and his flight to the U.S. Embassy have already made him a symbol of resistance to China’s shackles on dissent, and the deal struck between Washington and Beijing to have him remain in China will ensure he stays an international test case of how tight or loose those shackles remain.
Both governments said Chen had left the embassy voluntarily and U.S. officials said he never sought asylum.
Nonetheless, China accused the United States of meddling and demanded an apology for the way U.S. diplomats handled the case.
Bob Fu, the president of Texas-based religious and human rights group, ChinaAid, said Chen agreed to leave the embassy only because “serious threats to his immediate family members were made by Chinese government” if he refused the government’s offer. Dissident Hu Jia said his wife Zeng Jinyan had spoken to Chen’s wife, who also spoke of threats from the government.
Fu of ChinaAid said the group was very concerned about reports from what he called “reliable sources” that Chen’s departure from the embassy was involuntary. “Relevant reports show unfortunately the U.S. side ‘has abandoned Mr Chen,'” Fu said in a statement.
Chen’s departure from the U.S. embassy came as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Beijing for top-level U.S.-China talks.
“I am pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng’s stay and departure from the U.S. Embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values,” Clinton said.
“(Chen) has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment. Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task. The United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr. Chen and his family in the days, weeks and years ahead.”
Lawyer Jerome Cohen, who was directly involved by telephone in the embassy negotiations, called the resolution “one of the most daring, creative gambles we’ve seen in U.S.-China relations” and said his friend Chen was “putting his head back into the mouth of the dragon he just escaped from.”
“We don’t know how it’s going to work. We think it’s better than any of the other options and so does Chen,” said Cohen, a co-director of New York University School of Law’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute.
Chinese authorities offered Chen a choice of seven Chinese cities outside Beijing, including Tianjin and Nanjing, where he could study law, Cohen told reporters in a conference call.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the blind Chen, who escaped the watch of the world’s biggest internal security apparatus, had left the embassy of his own will. But the ministry criticised the United States’ role, saying it was meddling in its domestic affairs.
“What the U.S. side must do is not to continue misleading and not to strive by all means to shirk and hide its responsibility for this matter, and even less should it continue interfering in domestic Chinese affairs,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin.
Washington has said it will watch Chen’s treatment closely, and any effort by Beijing to fetter his activities could provide a new source of contention.
Cohen said that as Chen warily weighed his options a suggestion that Obama could make a statement on the case to keep pressure on the Chinese helped him decide to accept the deal. There was no word from the White House on the idea.
But it is far from certain that Chinese authorities, especially nervous with a leadership succession later this year, will grant him free rein -- or that local officials will cooperate.
“The real question is going to be how are they going to put flesh on the bare bones of this agreement,” said Cohen, a leading expert on the Chinese legal system.
The U.S. State Department denied reports that Chinese officials made threats to Chen’s family during the negotiations or that U.S. diplomats reported any such threats to Chen.
Cohen said he could not confirm the reported threats and added, “Chen himself did not say that to me.”
“I do know (Chen) was told that if he chooses to stay in the embassy, that the Chinese authorities were very unlikely to allow him to do so with his family,” said Cohen.
A U.S. official earlier said that Chen had asked to make a call to Clinton from the car while he was being driven to a Beijing hospital, escorted by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke. The official quoted Chen as telling Clinton: “I want to kiss you.”
The drama over Chen threatens to overshadow this week’s U.S.-China talks.
Quite apart from the importance of developing ties between the world’s two largest economies, both governments are aware of the impact the case could have on their domestic politics.
Later this year, U.S. President Barack Obama will seek a second term, knowing that his Republican foes are already accusing him of being too soft on China. They may now criticise him for not doing enough to ensure the activist’s safety.
Also later this year, China’s ruling Communist Party will bring in a new set of leaders, a normally well choreographed process that has been wrong-footed by a scandal enveloping senior leader Bo Xilai. That too was triggered after a senior Bo aide sought refuge in a U.S. diplomatic mission.
Some analysts said the issue appears to have divided the top leadership and may have upset hardliners who want to keep a firm lid on any thing they see as undermining party rule.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s first public reaction was anger. “The U.S. method was interference in Chinese domestic affairs, and this is totally unacceptable to China. China demands that the United States apologise over this, thoroughly investigate this incident, punish those who are responsible, and give assurances that such incidents will not recur,” ministry spokesman Weimin said in a statement.
Rights lawyer Teng Biao said he had spoken briefly with Chen’s wife, Yuan Weijing, and that both she and their two children were now in Beijing. He had no details on how they had been treated since Chen escaped.
Censors were still blocking searches for Chen’s name on China’s wildly popular Twitter-like service Weibo, but many people were able to skirt restrictions by simply calling him “the blind lawyer.”
“I’ve beaten the censors to find out about this great event - respect to the blind lawyer,” wrote one user.
“The blind lawyer has broken out from the stockade to freedom. So gratifying,” added another.