Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Thursday attacked the Obama administration over its handling of the case of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, calling the case a "dark day for freedom" and a "day of shame for the Obama administration."
"The reports are, if they are accurate, that our administration, willingly or unwittingly communicated to Chen an implicit threat to his family, and also probably sped up, or may have sped up the process of his decision to leave the embassy because they wanted to move on to a series of discussions that Mr. Geithner and our secretary of state are planning to have with China," Romney said in a campaign speech in Portsmouth, Va.
It was the first time the candidate and presumptive Republican presidential nominee in the November elections criticized the president on an issue related to China.
"It's also apparent according to these reports, if they are accurate, that our embassy failed to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would ensure the safety of Mr. Chen and his family," Romney said. "If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom. And it's a day of shame for the Obama administration. We are a place of freedom here and around the world, and we should stand up and defend freedom wherever it is under attack."
The unfolding drama of the blind human rights activist has put the Obama administration on the defensive as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are in Beijing for high-profile economic and strategic talks designed to promote U.S.-China relations.
Clinton made no mention of the Chen case in her remarks.
Chen, a blind activist and opponent of China’s policy of forced abortions, made a daring escape from house arrest in a rural Chinese province to the safety of the U.S. Embassy compound in Beijing.
Chen on Wednesday left the safety of the embassy based on an agreement with the Chinese government that he would not be harmed.
Instead, he was taken into custody at a Chinese hospital that is surrounded by security police who control access to the facility.
According to reports from China, Chen was moved to Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital and reports from the human rights group ChinaAid, which has maintained close ties to the dissident, said he was pressured to leave the embassy.
Chen told the Associated Press in a telephone interview that Chinese authorities threatened him with action against his family, including beating them to death, if he remained inside the embassy.
"The embassy told me that they would have someone accompany me the whole time," Chen said. "But today when I got to the ward, I found that there was not a single embassy official here, and so I was very unsatisfied. I felt they did not tell me the truth on this issue."
"I think we’d like to rest in a place outside of China," Chen said. "Help my family and me leave safely."
U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke told NBC of Chen’s appeal to leave China, "Apparently he’s had a change of heart."
Locke said that when Chen contacted the Embassy after leaving his home province, "We met with him, and then almost used a ‘Mission: Impossible’ maneuver to bring him into the Embassy, provided him full medical care."
China’s government denounced the U.S. handling of the case, calling it interference in China’s internal affairs, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. Beijing also demanded an apology for the affair.
State Department officials refused to say whether they caved in to the Chinese demand and made an apology.
Locke said Chen asked to leave the country with Clinton and also asked to meet with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
Asked if Chen can leave China, Locke said: "Well, that’s apparently what he wants—a complete change from where he was all six days that he was at the Embassy."
Earlier, Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, who is in China for the talks, declined to answer directly when asked if the U.S. government apologized for protecting Chen.
However, Campbell said, "His was an extraordinary circumstance with very unusual parameters and we don’t expect it to be repeated."
The comment raised the prospect that the United States and China reached an agreement on handling people who seek the safety of U.S. diplomatic outposts in China.
This is not the first time the Obama administration has stumbled regarding Chinese dissidents.
The Obama administration rejected the asylum request of senior Communist police official Wang Lijun in February after Wang sought refuge at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. U.S. officials said the office of Vice President Joseph Biden opposed the granting of asylum to Wang over concerns China would cancel the upcoming visit of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping. A White House spokesman denied Biden aide Anthony Blinken was involved in rejecting Wang’s asylum request.
Clinton said in a statement before Chen sought to leave the country that she was 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."
"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," she said. "Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task."
Republicans on Capitol Hill called a hearing on the case.
"Having been handed over to the Chinese officials by American diplomats yesterday, Chen, his wife Yuan and the rest of his family and friends appeared to be in significant danger," said Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) chairman of congressional commission on China.
"Notwithstanding vague and potentially empty safety assurances from the Chinese side, Chen has, since leaving the American Embassy in Beijing, expressed an earnest desire to gain asylum for himself and for his family. Questions indeed arise as to whether or not Chen was pressured to leave the U.S. compound."
Administration spokesmen said Chen initially said he wanted to stay in China but changed his mind and now wants to flee the country by seeking asylum in the United States.
Asked about potential political fallout from the case, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters: "I can assure you that the president is not concerned about political back-and-forth on this issue." Obama is focused on advancing U.S. interests in relations with China, Carney said.
Bob Fu, the president of ChinaAid who spoke recently with Chen, told the congressional commission that Chen told him "he does not feel safe over there."
"He wants the U.S. to help him and his family to come out of China," Fu said.
Chen has been prevented from seeing his friends including human rights lawyers and activists who went to see him in the hospital, Fu said.