(CNSNews.com) - House Speaker John Boehner says he is "deeply disturbed" by reports suggesting that a Chinese human rights activist was pressured to leave the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, after receiving "flimsy" promises from Chinese authorities.
"In such a situation, the United States has an obligation to stand with the oppressed, not with the oppressor," Boehner said in a statement on Wednesday. "Having handed Chen Guangcheng back over to the Chinese government, the Obama administration is responsible for ensuring his safety."
Boehner admitted that the U.S. economic relationship with China is important. But, he added, "the United States has an obligation to use its engagement with China to press for reforms in China’s human rights practices, particularly with respect to the reprehensible 'one-child’ policy."
Chen, a blind, self-taught lawyer, has angered Chinese authorities by fighting for the legal rights of Chinese women who have faced forced abortion and sterilization under China's one-child policy.
According to the U.S. State Department, Chen arrived at the U.S. embassy in Beijing on April 26, "requesting medical treatment" for an injury he suffered while escaping from house detention. (He apparently hurt his foot jumping over a wall.)
"On humanitarian grounds, we assisted Mr. Chen in entering our facilities and allowed him to remain on a temporary basis," a senior State Department official told reporters at a briefing on Wednesday.
Chen's arrival at the U.S. embassy angered the Chinese and created an awkward situation for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who arrived in China on Wednesday for long-planned talks with the Chinese government. Human rights is a major area of disagreement between the two countries.
The question still swirling on Thursday is whether Chen was pressured to leave the embassy -- as Clinton and Geithner arrived and as the furious Chinese were demanding an apology for U.S. interference.
The State Department says no, Chen left the U.S. Embassy of his own free will and never requested political asylum in the U.S. But Chen tells a different story, insisting he was pressured to leave, after learning of threats to his wife.
"Throughout his stay at the Embassy, U.S. officials consulted regularly with Mr. Chen to discuss his wishes," a State Department official said. "Mr. Chen made clear from the beginning that he wanted to remain in China and that he wanted his stay in the United States Embassy to be temporary. He indicated that he placed priority on reunification with his family and that he sought relocation to a safe environment elsewhere in China from the province that he’s been living in."
The unnamed official said Secretary of State Clinton "provided strategic guidance and was kept completely informed at every stage of this effort."
By Thursday, however, a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that further contacts with Chen and his wife show that his views on what is best for them "may be changing."
Our understanding now from the contacts that we have had with him and his wife is that his view of what the best thing for him and his family may be may be changing, but we do not yet have a full view of what he wants to do at this stage," the official told reporters.
"So we are spending today (Thursday) endeavoring to clarify whether his position has changed and what he now wants. So we will continue to do that throughout the day today, and when we feel that we have a clear view of what his final decision is, we will do what we can to help him achieve that. But I’m not going to prejudge here what his final view is going to be, or what we will be able to do to support him given the fact that he very clearly made one choice yesterday, and may have had a change of view today."
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has urged the Obama administration to protect Chen and his family from continued persecution by the Chinese regime.
“The U.S. must work to protect Chen and his family, not hand him over to Chinese authorities to face almost certain persecution," she said on April 30, when Chen was still taking refuge at the U.S. embassy. "Forcing Chen into the hands of China’s police state would send a chilling message to all those around the world looking to America for support in their struggle for freedom.
“To date, this Administration has made a calculated decision not to challenge the Chinese regime on its dismal human rights record. This is an opportunity to correct that mistake. Instead of continuing to bury the issue, Secretary Clinton and Secretary Geithner must raise human rights publicly and in their meetings with Chinese officials this week.”
President Obama has not commented on Chen's departure from the embassy, and there has been no statement from the White House on the still-evolving dilemma.