BEIJING - The thorny case of a blind human rights activist who escaped from house arrest 10 days ago took a dramatic turn Wednesday when he was taken by U.S. Embassy officials to a hospital for treatment and to be reunited with his family.
Renowned dissident Chen Guangcheng's re-emergence came as senior U.S. officials acknowledged for the first time that they had helped him to enter their embassy "under exceptional circumstances" and remain there for six days. The Chinese Foreign Ministry demanded an apology, but it was not forthcoming.
The latest twist in the case came hours after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived here for talks with her Chinese counterparts on a wide range of strategic issues. Chen's escape from house detention, and his presumed protection at the U.S. Embassy, had threatened to upend those talks.
"I am pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng's stay and departure from the U.S. embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values," Clinton said in a brief statement here Wednesday night. "I was glad to have the chance to speak with him today and to congratulate him on being reunited with his wife and children.
"Mr. Chen has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment. Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task. The United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr. Chen and his family in the days, weeks, and years ahead."
U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity before Clinton's statement was released, described days of intensive negotiations with their Chinese counterparts over Chen's next steps. The dissident lawyer, 40, had made clear he wanted to remain in China, where he has been a prominent voice against sterilization and abortion to carry out the country's one-child-per-couple policy.
On Wednesday, the official state news agency Xinhua reported that the Chinese government was demanding an apology for Chen's entrance to the U.S. Embassy. Chen "left of his own volition after a six-day stay," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin.
That was corroborated by the U.S. officials, who said Chen was allowed in "on humanitarian grounds" because of his disability and injuries sustained during his daring escape.
On Wednesday, Chen agreed to leave the embassy with the promise that he would get medical treatment, reunite with his wife and two children, be relocated elsewhere in the country and be allowed to attend a university.
The officials said the Chinese government had agreed to treat Chen humanely and to investigate his allegations that he was mistreated by local officials in his home province.
As a result, the U.S. officials said, Chen's release is consistent with U.S. values and human rights policies. Even so, they were braced for their Chinese counterparts to raise the case with Clinton over dinner Wednesday night and, possibly, during the next two days' broader talks.
Clinton was kept informed of the negotiations throughout the process and provided "strategic guidance," the officials said. She spoke to Chen by cell phone while he was being transported to the hospital, they said. At one point, Chen told her, "I want to kiss you."
The solution isn't perfect, however. Chen will continue to struggle as he lives in exile, the officials said. Relations between the U.S. and China could be strained for some time.
Not since the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square has China been rocked by such a controversy over its human rights abuses. And not since coming to office has the Obama administration faced such pressure to defend dissidents and stand up to China.
Chen's dramatic escape from the home where local Chinese officials continued to detain him long after a 51-month prison sentence ended has been a huge embarrassment to the government here, highlighting both the nation's poor record on human rights and its inability to contain a blind detainee.
It also has put the Obama administration in a difficult position: not wanting to insult its Chinese hosts, with whom it is negotiating a range of strategic and economic issues, and not wanting to turn a famous human rights activist over to the government.
The apparent decision to move Chen from what had been a secret hiding place -- widely presumed to be the American embassy - could give both the U.S. and Chinese governments at least a temporary reprieve as they seek to resolve Chen's case to their mutual satisfaction.
The United States maintains its most complex geopolitical relationship with China, 40 years after President Richard Nixon swung open the doors to the world's most populous nation.
Chen's escape added a new layer of derring-do to a diplomatic mission for Clinton that already includes discussions of arms sales, maritime security and a number of delicate trade, currency and intellectual property rights issues.
In a Honolulu speech late last year marking what she called "America's Pacific century," Clinton cited Chen's house arrest as an example of China's spotty human rights record.
"When we see reports of lawyers, artists and others who are detained or disappeared, the United States speaks up both publicly and privately," she said.
But critics say the U.S. hasn't spoken loudly enough.
The administration's "indifference to Beijing's oppressive policies, as well as to (among other things) China's implicit support for North Korean and Iranian nuclear proliferation, has simply encouraged Beijing's belief that Washington would allow it a free hand," former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton wrote in the New York Post.
In recent days, several of the activists who may have helped Chen navigate the 300 miles from his village to the nation's capital have been taken into custody by Chinese officials. His wife and daughter had remained at home.
For Clinton, who's accustomed to juggling many balls in the air simultaneously, the Chen affair is but the latest of several controversies that could affect the customarily staid, two-day dialogue on strategic and economic issues.
North Korea's recent rocket launch and threats to conduct an underground nuclear test surely will be broached, as will U.S. plans to fortify Taiwan's air defenses. And the case of Bo Xilai, a prominent member of the ruling Politburo who was stripped of his power amid rumors of financial wrongdoing, hangs over the talks.
Clinton is no rookie when it comes to speaking out in China. As first lady in 1995, she gave perhaps her most famous speech equating women's rights with human rights "once and for all."