, BEIJING, May 2 – After years in prison and under house arrest and a week holed up in the US embassy, Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng had one English phrase for Hillary Clinton: “I want to kiss you.”
The United States had maintained a wall of silence after the activist fled to the US embassy on April 26, but US officials opened up on Wednesday over what they said had become a warm relationship with Chen as they negotiated for his safety.
Secretary of State Clinton, in Beijing for long-planned talks, spoke by telephone to the 40-year-old activist as he left the US embassy for a hospital where he received treatment and was reunited with his family.
“After saying in Chinese how grateful he was that she had mentioned him in the past and supported his case, he said in broken English, ‘I want to kiss you,'” a senior US official said on condition of anonymity.
Chen also told Clinton through an interpreter that he was happy to see his family but made clear he was “prepared for the struggle ahead”, the official said.
Chen was taken to a VIP section of a Beijing hospital in the company of US officials including Ambassador Gary Locke. Around 20 police and security guards, some wearing riot helmets, cornered journalists and ordered them to leave.
Police detained a protester outside the hospital who carried a banner that read, “Free Guangcheng. Democracy for China”, in a defiant show of dissent in the authoritarian nation.
A self-taught lawyer, Chen has been blind since childhood. He irritated authorities by exposing a campaign of sterilisations and forced abortions, some late in women’s pregnancies, to meet quotas under China’s one-child-only policy.
Since the end of his four-year prison sentence in September 2010, Chen has been under house arrest, considered harsh even by Chinese standards. Thugs are alleged to have beaten him for continuing to speak out and violently dispersed any reporters or well-wishers who came anywhere close.
The official said that Locke swapped personal stories with Chen during his week in the embassy and that the blind dissident would hold the hands of senior aides to Clinton who quietly flew in to resolve the standoff.
Chen spoke about Clinton and President Barack Obama and took note of past US statements urging freedom for him and other Chinese dissidents, the official said.
“He clearly has followed how Americans have talked about him and his case, and had taken sustenance,” the official said.
US officials said that Chen never requested to go to the United States and became eager to leave the embassy when he learned that his family was waiting at the hospital — including one of his two children he had not met in two years.
“Ambassador Locke said it to him, ‘Are you ready to go?’ And he said, ‘Zou!’, which means ‘Let’s go,'” a second US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Once they started driving toward the hospital, US officials tried to arrange the call to Clinton but initially had difficulty. In their haste, the officials had left their phones at the embassy and Chen’s own mobile telephone did not work. Finally, a lower-level US embassy official handed over a personal phone.
Under the agreement, US officials said that China agreed to let Chen live without harassment with his family and study at a university.
However, China demanded an apology and the agreement could prove controversial in the United States due to concerns over how to verify Chen’s safety.