By Steve Holland
PORTSMOUTH, Virginia (Reuters) - Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Thursday slammed the Obama administration for its handling of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng's case, calling it "a day of shame."
Chen grabbed world headlines with his dramatic flight from 19 months of house arrest, reaching the U.S. Embassy complex in Beijing last week.
But the blind dissident is now under Chinese control in a Beijing hospital after being released from the embassy in a deal between the Chinese and U.S. governments.
Chen originally appeared to approve of the deal, but now says he fears for his and his family's safety if he stays in China under the arrangement that Washington had called a good outcome for the dissident.
At a campaign event in Virginia, Romney suggested the Obama administration may have convinced Chen to leave the embassy to try to curry favor with the Chinese authorities.
"If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom and it's a day of shame for the Obama administration," he 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."
Romney is catching up with President Barack Obama in opinion polls ahead of the November 6 election and has taken a hard line on China.
He has threatened trade sanctions against the world's No. 2 economy if it does not halt what he says are currency manipulation, unfair subsidies and rampant intellectual property theft.
Chen appealed on Thursday for asylum in the United States, throwing into doubt the agreement used to coax him out of hiding in the embassy and fanning U.S.-China tensions.
Romney said there were reports that Washington communicated to Chen an implicit threat to his family and perhaps sped up his decision to leave the embassy "because they wanted to move on to a series of discussions that (Treasury Secretary Tim) Geithner and our Secretary of State (Hillary Clinton) are planning on having with China."
(Editing by Alistair Bell and David Brunnstrom)