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BEIJING - Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng appealed on Thursday for asylum in the United States, throwing into doubt an agreement used to coax him out of hiding in the US Embassy in Beijing and fanning US-China tensions at a sensitive time.
The standoff appears particularly troublesome for the Obama administration, with Chen saying he now fears for his and his family's safety if he stays in China, as was planned under the deal that Washington called a good outcome for the dissident.
Chen, a self-taught legal activist, left the US Embassy on Wednesday and is now under Chinese control in a Beijing hospital. He had taken refuge at the US mission for six days after escaping house arrest and left after US officials assured him that Beijing had promised to improve his circumstances.
But Chen said on Thursday by telephone from hospital, where he was escorted by US officials and was being treated for a broken foot, that he had changed his mind after speaking to his wife, who spoke of recent threats made against his family.
The activist, citing descriptions from his wife, Yuan Weijing, said his family had been surrounded by Chinese officials who menaced them and filled the family home. Chen, from a village in rural Shandong province, has two children.
US Ambassador to Beijing Gary Locke told reporters that Chen had made it "very, very clear" to US officials that he wanted to stay in China.
The Chen case comes at a fragile time for both nations: US President Barack Obama will be sensitive to any criticism of the handling of Chen in the run-up to a November presidential election and China is struggling to push through its own leadership change late this year.
That carefully choreographed transition has already been wrong-footed by the downfall of ambitious senior Communist Party official Bo Xilai after he was caught up in a scandal linked to the apparent murder of a British businessman.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton found herself in the eye of the diplomatic storm on Thursday, turning up for the opening of annual bilateral talks in Beijing which have been overshadowed, but not derailed, by the Chen case.
"Of course, as part of our dialogue, the United States raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms," Clinton said. "We believe all governments have to answer our citizens' aspirations for dignity and the rule of law and that no nation can or should deny those rights."
US officials appeared no longer to be with him on Thursday, with the dissident saying he had still not had an opportunity to explain his change of heart to the US side.
"I hope the US will help me leave immediately. I want to go there for medical treatment," Chen said from the hospital, where a pack of camera crews and reporters was waiting outside, kept away from the entrance by police.
Washington had hoped its deal with Beijing over Chen would defuse the crisis, with both Clinton and US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in the Chinese capital for this week's talks - in which the United States will aim to secure more cooperation from China on trade and international flashpoints such as North Korea, Iran and Syria.
Chen, 40, is a legal activist who campaigned against forced abortions under China's "one-child" policy. He escaped 19 months of house arrest, during which he and his family faced beatings and threats, late last month.
US officials had said Chen left the embassy of his own free will because he wanted to be reunited with his wife and children. They said he wanted to remain in China and never asked for asylum.
"He knew the stark choices in front of him," US Ambassador Locke told reporters of Chen, who at one point in talks with the Americans demanded to speak to Premier Wen Jiabao. "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 ...
Chen's dramatic escape from house arrest and his flight to the US Embassy have made him a symbol of resistance to China's shackles on dissent, and the deal struck by Beijing and Washington would have kept him an international test case of how tight or loose those restrictions remain.
It could also prove politically costly for Obama, who has already been accused of being soft on China by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and who could now face further criticism over Chen's case.
What initially appeared to be a foreign policy success for the Obama administration could quickly turn into a liability. (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 Paul Eckert in Washington)