Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Thursday the Obama administration had "failed" to protect a blind Chinese dissident by factoring political considerations into the negotiations that ultimately led him to leave the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. The White House said the president wasn't concerned about the politics of the case.
Campaigning in Virginia, Romney said if reports that the U.S. communicated implicit threats to Chen Guangcheng as he was deciding whether to leave the embassy are true, that represents a "dark day for freedom."
Chen took refuge at the embassy after escaping house arrest. He rejected a deal to keep him safely in China and now says he wants to leave the country. Chen has said he feels abandoned by the U.S. American officials have said they didn't pressure him to leave.
"If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom and it's a day of shame for the Obama administration," Romney said. "We are a place of freedom, here and around the world, and we should stand up and defend freedom wherever it is under attack."
The State Department said this week it conveyed no implicit threats and the issue of violence never came up in its discussions with Chen. They told him that China had agreed for him to reunite with his family if he left the U.S. Embassy.
Romney suggested U.S. officials were motivated by the politics of Chen's case. He said U.S. officials "willingly or unwittingly communicated to Chen an implicit threat to his family" and accelerated negotiations for his safety because of scheduled high-level talks in the country with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts.
Romney also said the embassy had "failed to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would assure the safety" of Chen and his family.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama "is not concerned about political back-and-forth on this issue." Obama has an eye on the larger U.S.-China relationship and will continue to press Beijing on human rights, he said.
"He is focused on the need to advance U.S. interests in our broad-based relationship with China _ very important economic, diplomatic relationship with China," Carney said. "He has and will continue to make a priority in that relationship or a part of that relationship an open and frank discussion of our concerns about human rights."
Carney refused to elaborate on Obama's thinking on the issue.
The State Department had no comment Thursday on Romney's criticism of Chen's case.
Still, the issue hovered over Thursday's opening of two-days of talks on global political and economic hotspots led by Clinton and Geithner.
A self-taught lawyer, Chen, 40, spent most of the last seven years in prison or under house arrest in what was seen as retribution by local Chinese authorities for his activism against forced abortions and other official misdeeds. His wife, daughter and mother were confined at home with him, enduring beatings, searches and other mistreatment.
His escape from house arrest to the fortress-like U.S. Embassy last week put Washington at the center of a sensitive human rights case.
Chen's goal, he told U.S. officials, was to secure the safety of his family and remain in China. Under painstaking arrangements negotiated over days, he was to be reunited with his family and relocated elsewhere in China so he could formally study law.
Chen later said he felt abandoned at the hospital when he realized no U.S. Embassy staff had stayed to ensure his safety.
U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke defended the arrangements Thursday and said "unequivocally" that Chen was never pressured to leave.
The diplomatic dispute over Chen is sensitive for the Obama administration, which risks appearing soft on human rights in an election year or looking as though it rushed to resolve Chen's case before the start of the Clinton-Geithner talks.
Clinton said in a speech that China must protect human rights. She rejected Beijing's criticism of the U.S. for getting involved in Chen's case.