Activist took refuge in Beijing embassy and wanted to flee but accepted deal to stay in China, he says in interview from hospital
Jonathan Watts and Tania Branigan in Beijing agencies guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 2 May 2012 12.09 EDT
Chen Guangcheng at the Chaoyang hospital in Beijing where he has received treatment. Photograph: Jordan Pouille/AFP/Getty Images
Threats to beat his wife to death forced blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng to leave his refuge at the US embassy in Beijing, he said on Wednesday night.
US officials warned him of the threat from the Chinese side, he said in an interview from his hospital room in Beijing. He told Associated Press that he feared for his safety and wanted to leave the country.
AP said a US official denied knowledge of the threat, but said Chen was told his family would be sent back to eastern Shandong province – where they have lived under extra-legal house arrest – unless he complied with the deal to stay in China and study.
Hillary Clinton had earlier said that the handling of his stay and departure "reflected his choices and our values", adding that China had offered him understandings he could pursue higher education in a safe environment.
"Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task," added the secretary of state, who arrived in Beijing on Wednesday. Chen also told his lawyer that he had "received clear assurances".
But supporters had already expressed grave concern about whether his safety could be protected if he remained in China and news of the threats emerged when Zeng Jinyan, a friend of Chen, said he told her in a phone call that he needed her help.
Friends and human rights activists had already questioned the value of assurances of safety.
"It raises the question of whether we can trust the promises not to retaliate against Chen Guangcheng and his family and supporters," said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch.
"It's very difficult to se how China can honour the bargain given that the suppression of human rights activists and government critics are embedded in its political situation. This is what they do day in and out … There are no reassurances I can trust that Chen and his family will remain safe in the long term."
China has demanded that the US apologise for taking him into the embassy in "an irregular manner".
"The US method was interference in Chinese domestic affairs, and this is totally unacceptable to China. China demands that the US apologise over this, thoroughly investigate this incident, punish those who are responsible, and give assurances that such incidents will not recur," the foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin added in a statement carried by Xinhua. The state news agency said Chen had spent six days at the embassy and left "of his own volition".
The "barefoot lawyer", who made a remarkable escape from a punishing 19-month regime of extra-legal house arrest last week, was reunited with his wife and children as he underwent medical checks at a Beijing hospital.
Chen is being treated in the VIP clinic on the ninth floor of the Chaoyang hospital.
His wife, who was waiting there with their exhausted 10-year-old son and six-year-old daughter, told the Guardian: "I'm OK. We don't know yet [what's wrong with him]. He's having a check-up."
She said they had arrived in Beijing on Wednesday.
The US ambassador, Gary Locke, and the state department legal adviser, Harold Koh, accompanied him to the hospital.
US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said staff had helped Chen enter the mission because he needed medical care following his escape.
"This was an extraordinary case involving exceptional circumstances, and we do not anticipate that it will be repeated," one said.
He did not elaborate and it is not clear exactly how Chen entered. But while the activist had apparently hoped to stay in safe houses in Beijing, friends concluded that he could not be protected unless he went to the US embassy and discussed asking for a car with diplomatic number plates to pick him up.
The official also said Chen had not asked for asylum, although in any case it cannot be granted to people outside the US.
Wang Songlian, of the Chinese Human Rights Defenders network, warned: "If he's going to stay in China, reassurances are not very reassuring because the Chinese government has a record of not honouring its words regarding human rights."
"The most worrying part is that his extended family is in Shandong and authorities could retaliate by detaining or torturing them. We know four are in custody and one [his nephew, Chen Kegui] is accused of injuring government officials."
She gave short shrift to the Chinese demand that the US say sorry over Chen's case.
"I think it's incredible that the Chinese government would ask for an apology from the US when it has unlawfully put a human rights activist and his family under house arrest for so long," Wang said.
Chen's case has been regarded as one of the most egregious examples of official abuses. The self-taught legal activist was initially praised by authorities for using his skills to help disabled people and farmers with problems. But he angered officials in Linyi city, eastern Shandong province, after attempting to help women forced to have abortions and sterilisations. He was jailed for more than four years on what supporters described as fabricated charges and placed under house arrest on his release in 2010.