By Jethro Mullen and Steven Jiang, CNN
BEIJING (CNN) – Controversial Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. Embassy in Beijing under duress Wednesday, a friend of the activist’s told CNN, contradicting reports that he departed of his own volition.
Zeng Jinyan, a close friend of Chen and his wife, said that contrary to statements by U.S. officials, Chen was forced to leave the Embassy after local authorities threatened his wife with violence if he chose to stay.
The human rights activist is at the center of a controversy between the United States and China. He escaped house arrest, took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for six days and left for a hospital Wednesday.
Chen’s presence in the U.S. Embassy prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity between the United States and China. It threatened to overshadow U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s scheduled meetings with senior Chinese leaders this week.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said Chen decided to leave the U.S. Embassy “after he knew his family was safe and at the hospital waiting for him. He said Chen was repeatedly asked by U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke if he’s ready to leave the Embassy voluntarily, and each time he said, “let’s do it, let’s go.”
“We’re going to be putting some pictures out, and I think what you’re going to see from these is, he is excited. He’s happy. I think he’s anticipating the struggles ahead, but let me say there was a lot of hugging and really quite genuine warmth between him and us.”
U.S. officials also said Wednesday that Chen decided to go to the hospital in Beijing for treatment.
“He did so on the basis of a number of understandings. China acknowledged that Mr. Chen will be treated humanely while he remains in China,” a senior U.S. official said.
He is to have access to U.S. doctors and other visitors and has been reunited with his wife and two children at the hospital, the official said.
“They will remain together with him as a family,” the official said. “He had not seen his son in a few years, and his wife had not seen him either, so this was a family reunification after a long and difficult separation.”
Clinton was the first person to call Chen after he left the Embassy, a U.S. official said. Chen said to Clinton, in broken English, “I want to kiss you,” the official said.
Clinton said she’s pleased that U.S. officials “were able to facilitate” Chen’s “stay and departure from the U.S. Embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values.”
“I was glad to have the chance to speak with him today and to congratulate him on being reunited with his wife and children,” she said in a written statement.
Chen, a blind, self-taught lawyer, last month evaded guards who had kept him under house arrest for more than 18 months in a small eastern village. He was confined to his home after serving four years in prison, apparently over his legal advocacy for what he called victims of abusive practices such as forced abortions by China’s family planning officials.
He made his way to Beijing on April 22, moving from safe house to safe house before finding refuge at the U.S. Embassy. Friends and fellow activists had raised concerns about his health.
Chinese officials have guaranteed that no further legal issues will be directed at Chen and that reports of mistreatment against him will be investigated, a U.S. official said.
He has made clear that he wants to stay in China and so will be moved to a “safe environment” away from the province where he was kept under house arrest, another U.S. official said.
Chen “may attend a university to pursue a course of study,” the official said.
“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. Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task,” Clinton said.
“The United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr. Chen and his family in the days, weeks and years ahead.”
Campbell said he thinks “everyone felt that we had served his interests and we had worked closely with him in a manner that brought his family together that had been torn apart years ago and really had done something that gives him a chance to have a productive life. It’s not going to be easy, but that’s what he wanted, and we were very grateful to be able to support it.”
Suzanne Nossel, Amnesty International USA’s executive director, said the group welcomes the U.S. and Chinese efforts to resolve the issue and called the development a “good first step.”
“It is imperative that over time, the treatment of Chen and his supporters will continue to reflect his choices and universal human rights values and that he will be free to resume his activities as a powerful global advocate for China’s disadvantaged and voiceless.”
Frank Jannuzi, head of the Washington office of Amnesty International, said, “by refusing to take the relatively easy route into exile, he reminds the world that bravest advocates for human rights in China live in the country, not along the banks of the Potomac River.”
But Zeng posted five messages on Twitter after she spoke to Chen on the phone, recounting her conversation with him.
“His wife said local officials had installed surveillance cameras inside their house … and would wait for her with sticks,” Zeng wrote. “If Guangcheng didn’t agree to leave the embassy, she and the kids would be sent back immediately.”
When contacted by CNN, Zeng said everything she tweeted is true. She said she couldn’t elaborate after being warned by state security agents.
“Chen and his family are not out of danger. Please help them,” she said.
Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid, a Texas-based Christian human rights organization, said it received reports from reliable sources that Chen reluctantly left the Embassy because the Chinese government threatened his immediate family members if Chen refused to accept the government’s offer.
“Relevant reports show, unfortunately, the U.S. side ‘has abandoned Mr. Chen,'” Fu said. “We are deeply concerned about this sad development if the reports about Chen’s involuntary departure” from U.S. Embassy are true.
“While we understand Chen’s wish all along was to live as a free man in China, to seek political asylum was not the ideal option, as he did not want to be an observer of the fight for reform and the rule of law,” Fu said.
“He has the admiration of the world right now, and that will perhaps help keep him safe in the short term, but I am fearful what could happen if the world loses interest,” Fu said. “The government sees him as a troublemaker and a threat to their legitimacy, a very serious concern in the aftermath of the Bo Xilai scandal. The free world has a moral imperative and obligation to ensure Chen’s protection. His fight for freedom is one shared by us all.”
But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said U.S. officials didn’t speak to Chen “about physical or legal threats to his wife and children,” and Chinese officials didn’t “make any such threats to us.”
“U.S. interlocutors did make clear that if Chen elected to stay in the Embassy, Chinese officials had indicated to us that his family would be returned to Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for reunification,” she said. “And at no point during his time in the Embassy did Chen ever request political asylum in the U.S.”
The situation has presented a complex test for the Obama administration’s approach to relations with China, creating a strain between upholding human rights and maintaining steady ties with Beijing.
Chen entered the U.S. Embassy “under exceptional circumstances” over the weekend and asked for medical treatment, one of the U.S. officials said.
“In part because of his visual disability, he was injured while traveling to Beijing from his home village of Donhigu in Shandong province. That’s a hundred miles away. On humanitarian grounds, we assisted Mr. Chen in entering our facilities and allowed him to remain on a temporary basis,” the official said.
China demanded an apology from the United States for its handling of the situation. Liu Weimin, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, in comments reported by the state-run news agency Xinhua, called the U.S. activity “interference in Chinese domestic affairs, and this is totally unacceptable to China.”
He added, “China demands that the U.S. apologize over this, thoroughly investigate this incident, punish those who are responsible and give assurances that such incidents will not recur.”
China called on the United States to stop misleading the public after Clinton made a statement on taking a Chinese citizen “via abnormal means into U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Xinhua reported. Weimin said Chen left the Embassy “of his own volition.”
Publicly, the U.S. and Chinese authorities had skirted around the subject of Chen before Wednesday.
President Barack Obama stayed tight-lipped on the matter when asked about it Monday, saying simply that “every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up.”
An editorial published Wednesday on the English language website of the Global Times — a sister publication of the People’s Daily, which is the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper — addressed the subject of the activist.
“In the Western media, Chen is a hot potato for Chinese authorities,” the newspaper said. “Now he is making Washington uncomfortable.”
It sought to play down the situation’s significance for U.S.-Chinese relations, saying the talks this week are “unlikely to dwell on him.”
The situation is all the more complicated for Clinton, who has advocated Chen’s case in the past.
After her arrival in Beijing on Wednesday, she has no official engagements until a dinner in the evening with State Councilor Dai Bingguo, a senior foreign policy leader.
Starting Thursday, Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are due to hold talks with their Chinese counterparts about strategic and economic issues.
Chen’s flight from detention came at a highly sensitive time for Chinese authorities. The Communist Party has been rocked by a scandal involving former high-ranking leader Bo Xilai, whose wife is under investigation in relation to the mysterious death of a British businessman in the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing.
The downfall of Bo, the former Chongqing party chief who is now being investigated in connection with serious disciplinary violations, has created shock waves ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition in China that is due to unfold this year.
Chen, 40, addressed Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in a video posted Friday on YouTube, detailing “cruel” abuses he said he and his family had suffered at the hands of authorities during months of heavily guarded detention in their home.
“They broke into my house, and more than a dozen men assaulted my wife,” he said. “They pinned her down and wrapped her in a comforter, beating and kicking her for hours. They also similarly violently assaulted me.”
Journalists and supporters were prevented from visiting Chen during his house arrest. One of those supporters is Hollywood actor Christian Bale, who was roughed up by security guards while attempting a visit in December.
A local court sentenced Chen to four years and three months in prison in 2006 on charges of damaging property and “organizing a mob to disturb traffic” in a protest, charges that his supporters called preposterous.
Since his September 2010 release from prison, he had been confined to his home along with his wife, mother and daughter.
Chen’s escape appeared to have angered local officials holding him captive, with supporters saying that at least four members of his family had been detained.
In the YouTube video, the activist appealed to the Chinese premier to investigate his case and expressed concern about the welfare of his wife, mother and daughter.
“Although I’m free, my worries are only deepening,” he said. “They have been persecuting my family for a long time, and my escape would only prompt them into a mode of revenge.”
CNN journalists who attempted to visit Chen’s home village of Dongshigu in Shandong province on Tuesday were followed and harassed by men in an unmarked car.
CNN’s Jaime FlorCruz, Stan Grant and Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.