White House Press Secretary Jay Carney today defended the Obama administration's handling of the diplomatic dispute over Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, insisting U.S. officials did not pressure him to stay in China.
Carney, however, repeatedly sidestepped questions about how the White House plans to resolve the ongoing crisis and whether the U.S. would support Chen's request for asylum, referring all inquiries to the State Department. "We are in conversations now, not we - the State Department folks in Beijing - and I simply can't give you a moment-by-moment update on that," he said.
The situation seemed resolved when the blind human rights activist left the U.S. embassy, where he sought refuge after escaping house arrest, under an agreement to reunite him with his family. But today Chen said he had changed his mind and wanted to leave for the U.S.
Carney denied reports that Chen was pressured to leave the U.S. embassy by American officials who informed him that his family might be in danger if he did not leave. "There was no pressure of any kind placed on him by U.S. officials," he said.
"At no point during his time in the embassy did Mr. Chen ever request political asylum in the U.S., and at every opportunity, he expressed his desire to stay in China, be unified with his family, continue his education and work for reform in his country. All of our diplomacy was directed at putting him in the best possible position to achieve his objectives," Carney said.
Mitt Romney today sharply criticized the way the Obama administration has handled the crisis, saying it would be a "day of shame" for Obama if the reports are true and U.S. officials communicated threats to Chen's family.
Asked if the president was concerned about the GOP push-back, Carney said, "I can assure you that the president is not concerned about political back-and-forth on this issue."
"He is focused on the need to advance U.S. interests in our broad-based relationship with China, very important economic, diplomatic relationships with China. He has and will continue to make a priority in that relationship or part of that relationship an open and frank discussion of our concerns about human rights. And that's his focus. It is absolutely in our national interest for us to pursue that kind of broad-based agenda with the - with the Chinese," he added.