BEIJING—When Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. Embassy here Wednesday afternoon, en route to the uncertainty of a Chinese hospital armed only with the guarantees painstakingly negotiated for him by his American protectors, he got through to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a borrowed telephone.
"I want to kiss you," he told Clinton in broken English, according to an account provided by one of the senior administration officials who accompanied him in the van.
But Zeng Jinyan, the wife of well-known activist Hu Jia, contradicted that account on Twitter, saying Chen told her he had asked to "see" Clinton, not to kiss her.
Either way, not long after, the blind dissident, a legal activist whose cause had in the past been publicly championed by Clinton after his crusade to expose forced sterilizations infuriated local authorities and led to his extralegal house arrest, left the custody of the Americans to reunite with his wife and two children at a Beijing hospital.
The deal, Clinton said in a statement, "reflected his choices and our values." But Chen later told the Associated Press from his hospital room that he was told that Chinese officials had threatened to beat his wife to death if he had not left the embassy.
In a statement, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell reiterated the department's version of events. "I was there," he said. "Chen made the decision to leave the Embassy after he knew his family was safe and at the hospital waiting for him, and after twice being asked by Ambassador Locke if he ready to go. He said, 'zou,' -- let's go. We were all there as witnesses to his decision, and he hugged and thanked us all."
It was an emotional, and highly unclear, ending to a diplomatic drama that has placed human rights abuses in China once again atop the American agenda, much to the dismay of a Chinese government playing host here to Clinton, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and some 200 American officials for an annual strategic and economic dialogue meant to showcase a very different kind of relationship between the two world powers.
As recounted by two senior U.S. officials who participated in the days of talks, it was an elaborate drama of the sort that rarely plays out publicly, a mix of Cold War-vintage dissident intrigue, superpower niceties, and human emotions running high after a week without sleep for all involved-and set against the backdrop of an urgent deadline in the form of the intricately choreographed U.S.-China dialogue set to begin here within hours.
This very first account, provided to the press corps traveling with Clinton not long after arriving in Beijing on a 20-hour journey here, confirms for the first time what had been suspected since Chen's dramatic flight from his village became public last Friday: U.S. officials did in fact help Chen, injured during his escape, enter the U.S. Embassy here.
Chen, according to their account, had been injured in his foot when he jumped over the wall to make his escape-actually, said one of the American administration officials, he had to make his way over eight walls-and begin his long journey to Beijing. Once in American hands, an extraordinary process ensued as American and Chinese diplomats tried to figure out how to handle a situation that had last come up back in the chaotic days after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when a dissident academic, Fang Lizhi, ended up in the U.S. Embassy for more than a year while his fate was negotiated and before ending up in American exile.
Everyone seemed determined to avoid that outcome this time, from Chen, who repeatedly told the Americans he wanted to remain in his country, to the U.S. and Chinese officials who now have much more at stake in a relationship between the world's two top economies than they did two decades ago, before China's remarkable economic rise and ascent on the global stage.