Hospital refuge became new jail
Blind legal advocate Chen Guangcheng's decision to flee China, made after he departed from the US embassy on Wednesday afternoon, has drawn varied responses from friends and fellow rights advocates. Many are still trying to piece together what led to his change of mind.
Lawyer Li Jinsong, the legal counsel for Chen in his lawsuits against Shandong authorities, was one of the first people Chen called when he was on his way from the embassy to Beijing's Chaoyang Hospital where he was reunited with his wife Yuan Weijing and children. The call came at around 3.15pm and was made from a number that Li said belonged to an embassy staff member.
'He sounded happy during the call, asking me to inform other friends to meet him at the hospital,' Li said. 'His change of mind probably happened after he met with his family and spoke to friends.'
Lawyer Teng Biao and Zeng Jinyan, wife of Aids activist Hu Jia, broke the news on Twitter about Chen's change of heart.
Teng said he spoke with Chen six times between 8pm and 11pm on Wednesday and posted a transcript of the conversations online. They show Chen's gradual change of mind after Teng urged him to leave China, citing past examples showing Beijing's vow not to retaliate could not be trusted.
Other factors appeared to have added to Chen's fears. Shortly after he arrived at the hospital, all US officials that accompanied him there left; his phone signal was disrupted; he repeatedly asked for food for himself and his family, but no one responded until after 9pm; and none of the friends he had invited to meet with him were allowed to see him, including Zeng. There were also claims of new threats by officials.
Teng sent one tweet at 10.15pm, saying: 'Chen Guangchen said the Shandong officials who brought Yuan [to Beijing] were still around.'
Lawyer Jiang Tianyong , who was taken away yesterday afternoon after attempting to enter the hospital to meet with Chen, told the South China Morning Post earlier that morning that he thought Chen made up his mind after reaching the hospital.
'Previously he had been threatened only by people in Linyi [Shandong] - he was not in contact with people from the central government or Beijing - but at the hospital, he was directly threatened by someone from the foreign ministry.
'This perhaps made Chen truly feel that he was not protected,' Jiang said.
'Also, the fact that he couldn't see any friends made him realise quickly that he was in isolation again.'
According to a report by Time magazine, the US side was hopeful that an arrangement like that made for artist-activist Ai Weiwei could have been reached for Chen - or 'a space between prison and total freedom', said veteran Chinese law professor Jerome Cohen, who discussed options with Chen when he was at the US embassy on Monday and Tuesday.
Ai said that while he, too, wasn't allowed to speak to friends or journalists when he was first released from custody, it's different for Chan: he's blind and he needs help from others.
'The pain he has endured is also immense. Any small occurrences could make him lose trust in this system,' Ai told the South China Morning Post.
Ai said he believed that, since Chen is now outside the embassy, there's an easy solution for all parties if Chen wants to leave the country - simply allowing him to apply for immigration to the US, rather than going there under the auspices of seeking political asylum.
'The best outcome now is that China and US sit down to talk about it, and if Chen wants to leave, just let him go,' Ai said.
However, Chen's lawyer, Li, said he was worried about this new development. 'The original result was a relatively good one for Chen and his family. But now it seems like emotional influences are taking over, drowning out voices of the gentle conscience, both within and outside the system,' Li said. 'It'll be a relief if Chen can leave. But what if he can't?'