WASHINGTON -- In a surprising turn of events, Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng spoke to a congressional hearing Thursday from his Beijing hospital bed -- and requested a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The unusual call -- Chen's voice amplified from a cellphone held to a microphone -- was the latest twist in a dramatic week in which his bid for U.S. protection has snared U.S.-China diplomacy and cast an international spotlight on his persecution by Chinese authorities.
Chen expressed fears for his family members, particularly his mother and brothers, and said that people in his home village were now suffering retribution for helping him, since he escaped from house arrest and sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
The blind activist, who has spent the last seven years in prison or under abusive house detention, left the embassy for the hospital Wednesday. He has since said that rather than stay in China as originally agreed in negotiations between Chinese and U.S. officials, he wants to come with his family to the United States.
Chen said that he wanted to come to the United States "for some time of rest." He said he's had none for 10 years.
"I'm really afraid for my other family members' lives," Chen told the hearing, convened to discuss his case and the Obama administration's handling of it.
He said that since his escape, Chinese authorities have installed seven video cameras and even an electric fence at his house. "Now those security officers in my house basically have said, 'We want to see what else Chen Guangcheng can do.' "
Chen's comments were translated to English by a rights activist testifying at the hearing, who arranged the call. Chen spoke for several minutes, in conversation with Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
Bewildered and alone with his wife and children, Chen throughout the day switched on a cell phone to tell friends and foreign media he felt scared and wanted to go abroad, and that he had not seen U.S. officials in over a day.
Chen's high-profile effort to keep his case in the public eye served to increase pressure on Washington and embarrass Beijing as it hosted Clinton and other U.S. officials for annual talks on global political and economic hotspots.
Taken aback at Chen's change of heart, U.S. diplomats spent much of Thursday trying to confirm that the family wanted to leave, and they eventually said they would try to help him. Still, it remained unclear how they might do so now that he has left the embassy, or whether the Chinese would be willing to renegotiate a deal that both sides thought had been settled a day earlier.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner confirmed U.S. officials weren't able to see Chen in person Thursday but spoke twice with him by telephone, and once with his wife, Yuan Weijing, outside the hospital.
"It's our desire to meet with him tomorrow or in the coming days," Toner said. "But I can't speak to whether we'll have access to him. I just don't know."
Meanwhile, the Obama administration's handling of the case drew sharp criticism from Mitt Romney and Republican lawmakers. Campaigning in Virginia, the Republican presidential candidate said reports that American officials allowed Chen to leave the embassy represented a "dark day for freedom" and a "day of shame for the Obama administration."
Rep. Frank Wolf, a fierce Beijing critic, told the hearing held to discuss Chen's case that the Obama administration's handling of it was "naive," adding that "a purported diplomatic triumph evolved into a diplomatic fiasco."
Chen said throughout his six-day stay at the U.S. Embassy that his desire was to remain in China with his family, and U.S. diplomats said that was their goal in negotiations with Chinese officials.
After several days of talks, U.S. officials said they extracted a guarantee that Chen would be relocated outside his home province to a university town where he could formally study law. U.S. officials said they would periodically monitor his situation, though they did not specify how.
But hours after a gleeful Chen left the U.S. compound, he changed his mind, driven in part by his wife's tales of abuse and retribution in the days after Chen managed to escape from his rural farmhouse.
Under the deal that brought him out of the embassy, the family was reunited and taken to Chaoyang Hospital, where Chen was treated for a foot injured in his escape. There, Chen's wife told him what had happened after local officials discovered he was gone.
She "told him his family was tied to chairs and interrogated by police, and that his nephew attacked somebody and is on the run outside and might be in life-threatening dangers," said Li Jinsong, Chen's lawyer. "These things undoubtedly have left an impact on him."
Chen also felt abandoned by the United States, finding no embassy staff at the hospital to assure his protection.
"The embassy told me that they would have someone accompany me the whole time," he told The Associated Press late Wednesday. "I felt they did not tell me the truth on this issue."
On Thursday, Chen sent a message through a friend clarifying that he does not seek asylum from the United States but wants to travel or study here temporarily.
Ensconced in his hospital room, Chen offered one possible solution to the impasse: "My fervent hope," he told the Daily Beast, "is that it would be possible for me and my family to leave for the U.S. on Hillary Clinton's plane."
Both Smith and Wolf, among the most dogged critics in Congress of the communist government in China, called for Chen to be granted asylum in the United States.
"The Obama administration has a moral obligation to protect Chen and his family. To do anything less would be scandalous," Wolf said.