It briefly looked like a rare happy ending for one of China's most-persecuted dissidents.
Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer who made international headlines with his dramatic flight into the U.S. Embassy, would leave diplomatic turf of his own free will to rejoin his family. They would be allowed to move to another part of China – away from those who tormented them in their native Shandong province – with their safety guaranteed by a pact sealed by visiting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
It took just hours for harsh reality to smash the illusion that China had backed down and admitted some wrongdoing in its treatment of a prominent critic. By Wednesday night, the delicately negotiated deal was in shreds, Chinese-American relations were back on shaky ground and Mr. Chen was alone and scared in Beijing's Chaoyang Hospital, appealing for help to leave the country.
In shifting appeals over a period of hours, he told friends and reporters that he'd only agreed to leave American protection because the authorities in Shandong had made what he interpreted as a threat to beat his wife to death. He said he no longer wanted to stay in China. He wondered where the U.S diplomats who had promised to protect him had gone.
"Nobody from the [U.S.]Embassy is here. I don't understand why. They promised to be here," he told Britain's Channel 4 television by telephone from inside the closed hospital where he was being treated for a foot he injured during his nighttime escape from extralegal house arrest.
Asked if he had gone to the hospital because of his injured leg, Mr. Chen replied: "No. I came because of an agreement. I was worried about the safety of my family. A gang of them have taken over our house, sitting in our room and eating at our table, waving thick sticks around."
The situation is dangerous for Mr. Chen and his family, and embarrassing to both Beijing and Washington. China snarled in anger as soon as Mr. Chen, who is facing no charges, left the safety of the U.S. Embassy after six days, and demanded a formal apology for American interference in its internal affairs. American diplomats, meanwhile, appeared confused and outmaneuvered, saying they would monitor Mr. Chen's treatment closely while lacking any tools to protect him.
The 40-year-old self-trained lawyer thrust himself into the centre of the unfolding drama last week by scaling eight walls during his escape from Dongshigu, the village in Shandong where local authorities – angry that he had exposed human-rights violations including forced abortions under China's one-child policy – had held him incommunicado for the past 20 months.
The effort to silence him backfired, and Mr. Chen was turned into an international cause célèbre. Since his release in 2010 following a four-year prison sentence for "organizing a mob to disrupt traffic," a stream of journalists, diplomats and human-rights activists tried break through the cordon around Dongshigu. All were turned back, some roughly
Mr. Chen's escape and 500-kilometre trek to the U.S. Embassy seemed perfectly timed, just days ahead of Ms. Clinton's own arrival in Beijing for the biannual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
There were initial cheers as U.S. diplomats announced a deal that would see Mr. Chen – who until Wednesday had said he didn't want to leave China – reunited with his wife and two children. They would move from Shandong to another, unspecified, region of China and Mr. Chen would attend university; something diplomats said was a long-time goal of his.
Everyone would save face, except for the thugs who had imprisoned Mr. Chen in his home in Shandong and subjected him to years of abusive treatment. There were even suggestions that they would be held accountable for their actions. The U.S. Embassy proudly posted photographs online of Mr. Chen's six-day stay under their protection. In them, he is smiling and appears relaxed behind his trademark dark sunglasses. At times he's holding hands with the diplomats negotiating his fate.
Ms. Clinton said the deal that allowed Mr. Chen to leave the safety of embassy territory "reflected his choices and our values." Adding a note of caution, she acknowledged that "making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task."
The situation changed shortly after Mr. Chen arrived at Chaoyang Hospital on Wednesday, where he was initially accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke. He later told his lawyer, Teng Biao, and a close friend, Zeng Jinyan, that he encountered someone from the Chinese foreign ministry inside the hospital who warned him about the safety of his family.
Soon after the American diplomats left, Mr. Chen began to despair, telling Mr. Teng and Ms. Zeng that he was scared and now wanted to leave China. At Mr. Teng's advice, he called the embassy to tell them he had changed his mind and now wanted to leave. No one answered.
"I talked to [Mr. Chen]by phone six times between 8:30 p.m. and 10:15 pm, [and]clearly sensed his position changing," Mr. Teng posted on his Twitter account. "Whether he left the embassy because of threats or for other reasons, he obviously now feels that he is not safe."
Mr. Teng said that after 11 p.m. Beijing time, he could no longer get through on Mr. Chen's phone.
Mr. Chen told his friends that he agreed to leave the embassy only after a U.S. diplomat told him that if he remained there, the Chinese authorities would take his wife back to Shandong. He interpreted those words as a physical threat. "My biggest wish is to leave the country with my family and rest for a while. I haven't had a Sunday in seven years," he told Channel 4.
U.S. diplomats say that was a sudden reversal from what Mr. Chen told them earlier Wednesday. "I was there," Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who was sent to Beijing ahead of Ms. Clinton to negotiate Mr. Chen's case, said in a statement. "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."
State Department officials also said no U.S. official said anything to Mr. Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children. In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner also disputed Chen's claim that he was left alone by the Americans at the hospital. "There were U.S. officials in the building," he told reporters. "I believe some of his medical team was in fact with him at the hospital." He said U.S. officials would continue visiting Mr. Chen while he was there.
Some of Mr. Chen's fellow dissidents were caught off-guard by his unexpected departure from the embassy and the seeming disappearance of the U.S. diplomats who had been by his side. "I'm shocked, this is really crazy," artist Ai Weiwei, who himself lives under constant surveillance, said when reached on his mobile phone as the drama unfolded. "Nobody knows what kind of deal has been made."
China's fury over the affair was made clear in a statement released immediately after Mr. Chen left the U.S. Embassy. "What the U.S. side has done has interfered in the domestic affairs of China, and the Chinese side will never accept it," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin was quoted as saying. He said Mr. Chen had been brought to the embassy "via abnormal means."
As news spread that Mr. Chen had left the embassy for Chaoyang Hospital, in eastern Beijing, media crews and a few supporters gathered outside. One man stood in front of the hospital and holding a sign saying "Freedom for Guangcheng, Democracy for China." He was there barely a minute before police grabbed him and dragged him inside.
Soon, the hospital's name was a banned search term on the heavily-censored Chinese Internet, joining Mr. Chen's name and that of Dongshigu, as well as more innocuous terms like "blind man," "American embassy" and "Shawshank Redemption," the name of a Hollywood film about a prison escape.