A photo made available by the State Department shows Chen Guangcheng, center,… (U.S. State Department )
Mitt Romney on Thursday issued a sharply worded critique of the Obama administration's handling of the case of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, saying he was troubled by news reports that Chen felt pressure to leave the U.S. Embassy in Beijing at a time when he feared for the safety of himself and his family.
During an event in Portsmouth, Va., where he was endorsed by onetime rival Michele Bachmann, Romney said he was heartened that Chen, a blind activist lawyer, had sought shelter at the embassy for six days after escaping house arrest in his home province of Shandong. But the presumed Republican presidential nominee said he was concerned about the circumstances of the negotiations between the U.S. and Chinese governments that led Chen to leave the embassy after assurances that he and his family would be protected if they remained in China.
"The reports are, if they're 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 [Treasury Secretary Timothy] Geithner and our secretary of State are planning on having with China,” Romney said, making an accusation that was immediately repudiated by White House officials.
"It's also apparent, according to these reports if they’re accurate, that our embassy failed to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would assure 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."
White House officials said the reports were not accurate and that Chen was never under any pressure to leave the embassy. And as long as he was there, the White House press secretary said, Chen never asked for asylum.
Since U.S. and Chinese officials brokered a deal to allow Chen to remain in China, Chen has been telling Western journalists that he fears for his safety. He told the Daily Beast in an article published Wednesday night that he had hopes to leave China with his family on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s plane. Clinton and other U.S. officials are in Beijing for a two-day strategic and economic summit that is to conclude on Friday.
Jay Carney, President Obama's chief spokesperson, declined to say during a briefing Thursday afternoon whether Chen is eligible for political asylum or if the president would sign off on that. Carney referred questions to the State Department.
Aides to Romney said the former Massachusetts governor believes that Chen would have met the requirement of a "well-founded fear of persecution" if he had requested asylum while at the U.S. Embassy. But with Chen having left the embassy before making such a request, Romney said he now believes that the administration "must redouble efforts to protect him."