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.
Even after he finished serving his term, officials have been ruthless in their treatment of the family, beating his wife and widowed mother, and forcing Kerui to leave his parents to prevent him smuggling messages to the outside world during trips to school. Even 6-year-old Kesi was targeted, with guards rifling through her book bag each day after school.
Chen worried those abuses would continue, or worsen, if his family were sent back.
Those concerns were heightened when his wife told him in the hospital that, after he escaped last month, seven surveillance cameras were installed inside their house and guards armed with sticks began sleeping in their home and eating at their table.
"I feel that if my safety could have been ensured I would have wanted to stay," he said. "But now when I look at it, I don't have that kind of hope any more. I now think what I really need is to be with my family and rest."
He added that he was afraid Chinese authorities would think of some excuse to send him back to Shandong despite assurances from the central government that he will be resettled elsewhere, with his tuition and living expenses paid.
Apart from Chen, Yuan has always borne the brunt of the retaliatory abuse meted out by Dongshigu's leaders and hired toughs. In family photos, she looks cheerful, a broad smile gleaming against her bronze farmer's tan, but her ordeal has been long and relentless.
In a video plea taped and posted online last week by Chen after his escape, the activist railed against the treatment of his wife.
"They broke into my house and more than a dozen men pushed my wife to the ground and covered her in a blanket, then beat and kicked her for hours," he said, without specifying when the attack occurred.
In a letter smuggled out of their village last year, Yuan herself described a Feb. 18 beating that lasted two hours and left her with what she believed was a broken brow bone and broken rib, both still untreated.
She said guards put metal sheets over their windows, confiscated their belongings, denied them medical care and barred them from food shopping.
She described how a district Communist Party official, Zhang Jian, punched her in the head after she complained about authorities taking the family's property.
In 2007, Yuan had her passport and telephone confiscated at the Beijing airport when she tried to fly to the Philippines to accept a Magsaysay Award, Asia's version of the Nobel Prize, on Chen's behalf. She was forcibly returned to Shandong.
In 2009, Yuan's brother-in-law was killed in a car accident. She told a U.S. broadcaster that guards laughed when she pleaded with them to let her visit her grieving relatives.
"Physical pain, I think I can endure that, but the mental pain, I really cannot endure it," Yuan said in a taped telephone interview with New Tang Dynasty TV at the time. "They do not even let me see my sister to comfort her, and my mother. I really feel very sad."
Nor has Chen's extended family escaped the punishment.
His elder brother, Guangfu, was detained last week and is still in custody. Guangfu's grown son, Kegui, used a cleaver to attack local officials who raided his house in the middle of the night after realizing Chen had escaped. He is now a wanted man on the run.
Chen's elderly, widowed mother, who lives with the couple, has also been under constant surveillance, with as many as three guards watching her when she works the fields. Chen said in last week's video that guards have beaten her. Around 80 years old, she is believed to still be under house arrest.
Chen said that if he is able to go abroad he'd like to bring his mother with him.
"But I don't know what her situation is," he added. "I don't know if she is safe."