U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged China Thursday to protect human rights, at the start of annual talks in Beijing that have been overshadowed by the case of a dissident who is seeking U.S. protection.
"As part of our dialogue, the United States raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Because we believe all governments have to answer to our citizens' aspirations for dignity and the rule of law and that no nation can or should deny those rights," she said.
Clinton made no specific mention of Chen Guangcheng, a blind rights activist who escaped from house arrest and sought protection for six days at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Chen left the embassy Wednesday after the U.S. was promised by China that he would be safe and reunited with his family. But hours later he told reporters that his family had been threatened and that he would like U.S. help in leaving China.
China has already demanded an apology from the U.S. for taking in Chen, calling it an unacceptable intereference in its domestic affairs. Chinese President Hu Jintao did not mention Chen during his opening remarks at the dialogue. But he did say that the U.S. and China "must know how to respect each other" even if they disagree on certain issues.
U.S. Congressman Chris Smith, to whom Chen has reportedly appealed for help, told VOA that he thinks U.S. officials should boycott the talks if they do not receive a better guarantee for Chen's safety. Smith said he thinks it is possible that Chen decided to leave the embassy out of fear for his family.
"If what he has said via the press is true - and his interviews and his personal appeals to me - if all that is true, then he should be allowed to leave as quickly as possible with his family to avoid further retaliations and further mistreatment," he said.
U.S. expert on China Jerome Cohen, who is Chen's friend, says he is unaware of the specific nature of the threats Chen reportedly received after leaving the U.S. embassy. He told VOA the last time they talked, Chen was excited about the idea of staying in China and reuniting with his family.
"My last talk with him was when he agreed that it sounded like an exciting idea, that was good, and would keep him in China and although he knew there were risks, he knew it would be worthwhile, and it would allow him to be reunited with the family, and it would allow him for the first time now the formal opportunity to study law and to develop cooperative relationship in China and the outside toward building a genuine legal system," he said.
Cohen urged rights groups and social networks not to undermine U.S.-China agreement regarding Chen.
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State Department spokeswoman Mark Toner told reporters Wednesday that U.S. officials had received no threats from China regarding Chen and that the activist wants to pursue educational opportunities and continue his work in China.
"This was a decision that he reached with us through our interactions with the Chinese authorities -- that he wanted to stay in China, that he wanted to pursue his studies, that he wanted to continue his work. We tried to work with him so that he could achieve these goals. We believe we did that. He wanted to stay in China. He did not want to seek political asylum," he said.
After the agreement was reached, U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke accompanied Chen to a hospital where he was given medical treatment and reunited with his family.
U.S. Secretary of State Clinton said in a statement earlier Wednesday that she was pleased that U.S. officials were able to facilitate Chen's stay and departure from the embassy "in a way that reflected his choices and our values." A U.S. official earlier said Chen had spoken by phone with Clinton and thanked her for supporting his case.
Chen, under house arrest since 2010, escaped from detention on April 22 and later took shelter in the U.S. embassy, sparking a diplomatic standoff.
China's official Xinhua news agency Wednesday reported Chen's departure from the embassy. It said Chen had stayed at the facility for six days before leaving "of his own volition."
Chen is a lawyer and human rights activist who has been blind since childhood. He was given a four-year prison sentence in 2006 for exposing abuses under China's forced abortion policy aimed at population control. He had been under house arrest since 2010, before escaping on April 22.
He posted an Internet video last week saying he, his wife, and young daughter were abused during his house arrest. He also called on Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to investigate human rights abuses in China.
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Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.