Obama administration plays defense on handling of Chinese activist's case

The Obama administration scurried Thursday to defend its handling of the case of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng after what looked like a diplomatic coup threatened to turn into a major embarrassment.

A State Department deal ensuring that Chen would be able to remain safely in China quickly unraveled Wednesday after Chen had second thoughts and pleaded for President Obama to let him into the United States. The change of heart appears to have taken place after Chinese police surrounded Chen in his hospital room after he left the embassy to get treated for injuries sustained during his escape from house arrest 10 days ago.

The incident has created a diplomatic row just as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner entered high-level negotiations with Chinese officials on everything from the crisis in Syria to the Chinese currency.

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The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday demanded that the White House apologize after U.S. officials confirmed that Chen hid at the American Embassy in Beijing after escaping house arrest about 10 days ago. Clinton broached the subject of human rights during her opening remarks Thursday at the annual U.S.-China Economic and Strategic Dialogue but didn't press her Chinese counterparts on the Chen situation.

"Now of course, as part of our dialogue, the United States raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms because we believe that all governments do have to answer to citizens' aspirations for dignity and the rule of law, and that no nation can or should deny those rights," she said. "As President Obama said this week, a China that protects the rights of all its citizens will be a stronger and more prosperous nation, and of course, a stronger partner on behalf of our common goals."

Chen told The New York Times on Wednesday that he'd felt pressured "to a certain degree" to leave the safety of the U.S. Embassy in China. U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke categorically denied that version of events to reporters in China on Thursday.

"I can tell you unequivocally that he was never pressured to leave, he was excited and eager about leaving when he made his decision, announced it," Locke said.

"He made it very, very clear from the very, very beginning that he wanted to stay in China, that he wanted to be part of the struggle to improve the human rights within China, and to gain greater liberty and democracy for the people of China. We asked him, 'Did you want to go to the United States?' and he said no — maybe someday to study, but his immediate goal was to stay in China and to help with the cause."

The ambassador also pushed back against Chen's allegation that U.S. diplomats abandoned him at the hospital.

"We stayed with him in the hospital," Locke told reporters. "Of many, many people, I was there for probably an hour and a half after he entered the hospital, met with the family, met with the children."

U.S. officials said they are continuing their conversations with Chinese officials but have so far declined to say whether they will allow Chen to move to the United States with his family.

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