By Chris Buckley and Paul Eckert
BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng made a dramatic plea for U.S. protection in a cellphone call to a congressional hearing from his hospital bed in Beijing, raising pressure on President Barack Obama over his administration's handling of the case.
Chen, a self-taught legal activist, sheltered in the U.S. embassy for six days until Wednesday when he left after U.S.-brokered assurances from the Chinese government that he and his family would receive better treatment inside China.
But within hours, Chen changed his mind and is now under Chinese control in a Beijing hospital where he says he was taken by U.S. officials for treatment for a broken foot and to be reunited with his wife and two young children.
"I want to come to the U.S. to rest. I have not had a rest in 10 years," Chen said by phone to Thursday's U.S. congressional hearing on his case. His comments were translated by a witness, Bob Fu, head of Texas-based religious and human rights group ChinaAid, who had called Chen on his cellphone.
At the same time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Beijing for talks aimed at improving ties between the two superpowers - a big challenge given increasingly strident Chinese criticism of how Washington has handled the Chen case.
She told Chinese President Hu Jintao on Friday that ties were the strongest they had ever been, adding: "We have developed a very open and honest relationship where we can discuss our differences, and we remain committed to bridging those differences whenever and wherever possible."
Despite Clinton's brave face, one of China's main official newspapers accused Chen of being a pawn of American subversion of Communist Party power and called the U.S. ambassador, Gary Locke, a backpack-wearing, Starbucks-sipping troublemaker.
"Chen Guangcheng has become a tool and a pawn for American politicians to blacken China," the Beijing Daily said.
Chen said he wanted to meet Clinton to ask her for help and to thank her, according to Fu's translation. He said villagers who had helped him were "receiving retribution" and he was most concerned about the safety of his mother and brothers.
"I'm really scared for my other family members' lives," Chen said. "They have installed seven video cameras and are in my house."
A pack of camera crews and reporters have been waiting outside Chen's hospital in Beijing, kept away from the entrance by police. Radio Free Asia quoted Chen as saying he had received no visits from friends and his phone service was unreliable.
U.S. officials have defended their handling of the case, but Republicans and Chen's supporters were critical, saying the White House must ensure Chen's safety. He sought refuge in the U.S. embassy after escaping from house arrest in a village in rural Shandong province on April 22.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said if the reports were accurate, the U.S. Embassy "failed to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would ensure the safety of Mr Chen and his family.
"If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom, and it's a day of shame of the Obama administration," Romney said in Virginia as he campaigned for the November election.
China's Foreign Ministry has declined to comment on Chen's request to leave the country and repeated its criticism of the way the United States had handled the issue as "unacceptable". China has demanded a U.S. apology.
Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said: "It should have been obvious to U.S. officials all along that there is no way to guarantee Mr Chen's safety so long as he is within reach of the Chinese police state."
Some rights activists were also critical. "We have learned that when people come to the United States embassy they are not in fact 100 percent safe," said Reggie Littlejohn, president of the advocacy group Women's Rights Without Frontiers.
Fu of ChinaAid said Chen had told him that while he was at the embassy, U.S. officials conveyed a message that if he didn't leave that day his family would be returned to the village where his family had lived "in hell" for years. Fu quoted Chen as saying: "I felt great pressure to leave."
DECISION TO LEAVE
Chen, 40, is a legal activist who campaigned against forced abortions under China's "one-child" policy.
U.S. officials say Chen left the embassy of his own free will because he wanted to be reunited with his family. They said he wanted to remain in China and never asked for asylum.
"He knew the stark choices in front of him," U.S. ambassador Locke told reporters in Beijing on Thursday. "He knew and was very aware that he might have to spend many, many years in the embassy. But he was prepared to do that ...
"And he was fully aware of and talked about what might happen to his family if he stayed in the embassy and they stayed in the village in Shandong province."
The issue is overshadowing talks in Beijing with Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner which Washington had hoped would secure more cooperation from China on trade and international flashpoints such as North Korea, Iran and Syria.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said State Department officials were in talks with Chen, his wife and Chinese officials. He rejected suggestions that U.S. diplomats, seeking to defuse the situation with Beijing, had pressured Chen into his original decision to stay in China.
"And at every opportunity he expressed his desire to stay in China, reunify with this family, continue his education and work for reform in his country," Carney said. "There was no pressure of any kind placed on him by U.S. officials."
The Chen case also comes at a tricky time for China which is engaged in a leadership change later this year. The carefully choreographed transition has already been jarred by the downfall of ambitious senior Communist Party official Bo Xilai in a scandal linked to the apparent murder of a British businessman.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, Don Durfee, Lucy Hornby and Michael Martina in Beijing; Brian Rhoads, James Pomfret and Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong; and Arshad Mohammed and Lily Kuo in Washington.; Writing by Mark Bendeich and Claudia Parsons; Editing by David Storey and Jonathan Thatcher)