05/03/2012 08:54 EDT | Updated 07/03/2012 05:12 EDT

Blind Chinese activist wants to flee to U.S.

The fate of a prominent Chinese dissident — blind activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng — remained mired in confusion today, complicating relations between China and the United States.

Chen is asking for asylum and help to leave the country, because he fears for his safety. The activist left the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Wednesday after apparently being granted assurances he could live freely in China.

Almost immediately, however, he said he left only because of threats made against his wife and children. He then said he felt abandoned by the U.S. and said Chinese assurances were meaningless.

He returned to hospital and was being held there in tight security while being treated for an injury he received escaping house arrest last week.

The U.S. denies it pressured Chen to take a deal, though it's clear the arrival of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for bilateral talks with Chinese officials has complicated matters for the U.S., CBC News correspondent Catherine Mercier reported from Beijing.

"They were supposed to talk about top issues like Syria, Iran, North Korea, and they wanted a quick solution to … the Chen Guangcheng case," she said. "It is now not happening."

Chen's desire to go to the United States — even to fly out with Clinton — has proved to be a powerful diversion from the original diplomatic agenda.

Supporters wearing sunglasses

"For the U.S., they find themselves in a delicate position," Mercier reported. "The U.S. does not want to damage its relations with China, but at the same time, it is an election year in the U.S., and they want to make sure that they have public opinion on their side."

With Chen inside the hospital, people in Beijing who learned his whereabouts through electronic social networks have showed up at the hospital.

"Some supporters [are] wearing sunglasses just like the famous dissident, and they want to have their picture taken in front of the hospital," Mercier said.

China objects to any U.S. involvement in its internal affairs and has demanded an apology from Washington for harbouring Chen, who ran afoul of local officials in his rural town for exposing forced abortions and other abuses.

The murky circumstances of Chen's departure from the embassy, and his sudden appeal to leave China after previously declaring he wanted to stay, overshadowed the opening of annual talks Thursday between China and the United States.

Hard to see eye to eye

Clinton said in a speech that China must protect human rights, rejecting Beijing's criticism of the U.S. for getting involved in Chen's case.

Chinese President Hu Jintao told the gathering that China and the United States "must know how to respect each other" even if they disagree.

"Given our different national conditions, it is impossible for both China and the United States to see eye to eye on every issue," he said in the only part of the opening ceremony that was broadcast on state television.

"We should properly manage the differences by improving mutual understanding so these differences will not undermine the larger interests of China-U.S. relations."

Neither Hu nor Clinton specifically mentioned Chen, who remained at the Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing on Thursday, guarded by a handful of uniformed Chinese police and about 10 plainclothes officers.

U.S. denies warning of threat

A shaken Chen told The Associated Press from his hospital room Wednesday that Chinese authorities had warned he would lose his opportunity to be reunited with his family if he stayed longer in the embassy.

U.S. officials verified that account. But they adamantly denied his contention that one American diplomat had warned him of a threat from the Chinese that his wife would be beaten to death if he did not get out of the embassy.

"I think we'd like to rest in a place outside of China," Chen said, appealing again for help from Washington. "Help my family and me leave safely."

Only hours earlier, U.S. officials said they had extracted from the Chinese government a promise that Chen and his family would be able to start a new life in a university town in China, safe from the rural authorities who had abusively held him in prison and house arrest for nearly seven years.

Chen, 40, became an international human rights figure and inspiration to many ordinary Chinese after running afoul of local government officials for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations carried out as part of China's one-child policy.

He served four years in prison on what supporters said were fabricated charges, then was kept under house arrest with his wife, daughter and mother, with the adults often being roughed up by officials and his daughter searched and harassed.

Blinded by childhood fever but intimately familiar with the terrain of his village, Chen slipped from his guarded farmhouse in eastern China's Shandong province at night on April 22.

He made his way through fields and forest, along roads and across a narrow river to meet the first of several supporters who helped bring him to Beijing and the embassy.