Romney joined a chorus of Republican members of Congress as well as Chinese human rights activists in questioning whether the US government’s concern about maintaining good relations with Beijing had trumped its commitment to human rights.
Chen, after a short stay at the US embassy, is now in hospital in Beijing and back under the control of Chinese government authorities, after a deal negotiated by a special envoy from the US state department quickly unravelled.
The Obama administration is now faced with a serious dilemma over how to resolve the controversy.
Chen, from his hospital bed, has told journalists and fellow activists he felt pressured to leave the embassy, particularly after a US official conveyed a message from the Chinese government that Chen interpreted as a threat that he might never again see his wife and two children. He is asking for a safe passage to America, telling the Daily Beast that he would prefer departing on the same plane as US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
Clinton began talks Thursday with China‘s president, Hu Jintao, in Beijing, a day after Chen left the embassy. Activists expressed their suspicion that Chen was hustled out to avoid undermining the summit.
Romney, who will challenge Obama for the White House in November, said during a campaign stop in Virginia: “The reports are, if they are accurate, that our administration wittingly or unwittingly communicated to Chen an implicit threat to his family and also probably sped up, or may have sped up, the process of his decision to leave the embassy. If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom, and it’s a day of shame for the Obama administration.”
Republicans contrasted the treatment of Chen with how past Democratic and Republican presidents had provided sanctuary for dissidents for years at US embassies in the old Soviet empire.
At an emergency congressional hearing on the issue, Republican representatives Chris Smith and Frank Wolf echoed Romney. Wolf asked whether “word had come down from on high to resolve the situation” before the summit and described the Obama administration’s actions as “naive”.
Among those giving evidence to the hearing, “Bob” Fu, one of the leading Chinese dissidents living in the US and a friend of Chen’s who spoke with him on Wednesday night, urged Clinton, a vocal champion of human rights, to break off from her talks at the summit to deal with Chen. “Secretary Clinton, this is the moment to deliver on what you promised over the last few years,” Fu said.
Earlier, at a press conference, Fu described his phone conversation with Chen from the hospital. “‘I felt pressured to leave.’ These were his exact words,” Fu said.
US officials said Chen, who escaped from house arrest in his Shandong province village to the US embassy last week, had initially agreed to a deal in which he would be allowed to study law at a Chinese university. After leaving the embassy and speaking with his family, he told journalists by phone he instead wanted to leave for the US.
A US official said on Thursday that Washington is ready to help Chen. But his situation is complicated because he is now in a Chinese hospital rather than under US protection.
In a phone interview with the Guardian, Chen said that he was worried about his health, the safety of relatives still in his hometown, and his lack of communication with the outside world.
“I can’t go out. No friends visit me. For a time, my cellphone did not work last night, so I worry so much about my relatives back home. There are many people around my home with sticks and they have installed closed-circuit cameras. I heard they are putting an electric fence around my home.”
Chen’s dramatic escape from 19 months of illegal house arrest in led to days of difficult negotiations between US and Chinese officials. The US ambassador Gary Locke said: “He knew and was very aware that he might have to spend many, many years in the embassy. But he was prepared to do that. And he was fully aware of and talked about what might happen to his family if he stayed in the embassy and they stayed in the village in Shandong province.”
Locke added: “He made it very clear from the beginning that he wanted to stay in China, that he wanted to be part of the struggle to improve human rights within China.”
The ambassador said the deal included the family’s relocation to another part of China where Chen would be able to study law at university and a promise that authorities would investigate the complaints of abuse.
But after Chen was reunited with his wife and children at the Beijing hospital, her account of threats from officials and warnings from friends about the risks the family faced appear to have changed his mind.
US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed that the family “have had a change of heart about whether they want to stay in China” and said officials needed to talk further with Chen about options.
Many analysts were sceptical that China would allow the family to leave, although Steve Tsang, an expert on Chinese politics at Nottingham University, said he thought it was still possible. But he warned: “Public diplomacy or grandstanding will limit the scope for quiet diplomacy.”
US officials were present at the hospital – now ringed by police – but by lunchtime on Thursday had not seen Chen in person. An Obama administration official later said his wife came out of the facility for a long talk with US embassy officials.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin denied Chen had been held under house arrest, saying: “After Chen Guangcheng’s release from prison he was a free person, as far as I know. He has been living in his home town.” China has criticised the US for interfering, and demanded an apology from US diplomats.
Clinton, opening bilateral talks in Beijing, did not mention Chen specifically, but noted: “Of course, as part of our dialogue, the United States raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms. We believe all governments have to answer our citizens’ aspirations for dignity and the rule of law and that no nation can or should deny those rights.”
The Chinese Human Rights Defenders network reported that police seized prominent human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong outside Chaoyang hospital. His telephone was switched off on Thursday evening. The activist He Peirong, who drove Chen away from Shandong, is still missing. Concern for her safety was raised at the Congressional hearing.