BEIJING (AP) — Chen Guangcheng's sudden urge to leave China after insisting for days he wanted to stay has caught his American supporters offguard, but a simple truth underlies his change of heart: Then and now, he put his family first.
Reliant on his relatives to be his eyes on the world, Chen and his family share a bond that's been strengthened by years of enforced isolation and a shared fight against vengeful local officials. His children have been harassed, his wife beaten, his mother followed by guards as she tilled their fields.
Though the blind legal activist initially agreed to let China relocate him and his family to the northeastern coastal city of Tianjin, he now says that won't be far enough away from their persecutors in eastern Shandong province to guarantee their safety.
Chen is begging the U.S. to help him, his wife and two children go abroad. He would like his widowed mother to join them as well.
It's a stunning reversal from a hard-won compromise between China and the United States that saw Chen leave the U.S. embassy in Beijing where he had taken shelter after a daring nighttime escape from 20 months of abusive and illegal house arrest in his rural town.
Just a day ago, Chen's mind finally seemed to be set after being allowed a pair of phone calls with his wife, who'd been brought with their children to Beijing via bullet train, U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke said Thursday.
"He spoke with his wife on the phone twice and then we asked him what did he want to do," Locke said. "He jumped up very excited and said 'Let's go.'"
On the way to the hospital, Chen was "emotional, happy about the fact that he was going to be reunited with his family," a U.S. official said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Photos of the reunion released Thursday by the U.S. show the wheelchair-bound Chen in a bright hospital hallway smiling warmly as he greets his wife and two children. His 6-year-old daughter, Kesi, wears pigtails and his son of about 10, Kerui, is dressed in a T-shirt and sweat pants. In a second shot, Kerui rests a tentative hand on his father's wheelchair.
The moment marked the first time in two years that the boy had seen his father, diplomats said.
The separation was never by choice.
"They broke up and hurt Chen Guangcheng's family," Chen's lawyer, Li Jinsong, said Thursday. "It was the local government officials who wouldn't let the son go home because he was getting older and was better able to understand things, and what the local officials most feared was that Chen Guangcheng and his family would be able to communicate with the outside world. So, he was left with his maternal grandmother."
Chen is best known — and earned the most enmity from local officials — for his activism exposing abuses in his community related to China's one-child policy, including forced abortions and sterilizations, in a scandal that prompted the central government to punish some of the local officials.
Chen's own two kids, however, were allowed under an exception for disabled people, his supporters say, although Shandong's published guidelines say only a disabled person whose first child is a girl is eligible for a second one. It's not clear if Chen was ever reprimanded or fined for his second child.
Wednesday's reunion was initially painted as a triumph for U.S. diplomacy, but Chen now says his exit from the embassy was a rushed and bittersweet compromise. He said the Chinese government was threatening to send his family back to their rural home, and that U.S. officials pressured him to leave.
"I decided to leave (the embassy)," Chen told The Associated Press late Wednesday. "But I felt very frustrated, especially over the threats to my family. They said if I didn't leave, they would take my children and family back to Shandong."
Chen served four years in prison after his 2006 conviction on what his supporters say were bogus charges fabricated by officials in Dongshigu, Chen's home village in Shandong.