As Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist Chinese lawyer, hobbled on his crutches into the van that would take him out of the US embassy in Beijing on Wednesday, his hosts asked if he would like to speak to Hillary Clinton.
On a mobile phone borrowed from an embassy staff member, Mr Chen was connected to the US secretary of state, who had arrived in Beijing a few hours earlier for the latest round of annual bilateral talks with the Chinese government.
In Chinese he told Mrs Clinton how grateful he was to her for raising his case publicly with Beijing. He added, in broken English: “I want to kiss you,” according to a senior state department official who was present.
Two hours and half a dozen tweets later, however, what looked like a diplomatic triumph for the Obama administration had started to unravel into a new potential crisis between China and the US with enormous implications for the politics of both countries. The dramatic events happened just as Mrs Clinton and other senior US officials were arriving in Beijing for an annual security and economic summit with China.
Under the agreement outlined by US officials, Mr Chen decided to remain in the country, while the Chinese authorities had agreed to let him move to a different city and to study law with the same rights as any other student.
Yet later in the day Mr Chen gave a series of interviews saying that he feared for his and his family’s safety, that he wanted to leave China as soon as possible and that he felt let down by the US government.
“The embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised to be with me at the hospital,” he told CNN. “But this afternoon, soon after we got here, they were all gone.” He said his wife had been tied to a chair by police in their rural home town after his escape and that they had threatened to beat her to death. He believed his life would be in danger if he stayed in the country. “Anything could happen,” he reportedly said.
Even the US line about him wanting to “kiss” Mrs Clinton was disputed: one friend of Mr Chen said that what he had actually said he wanted to “see” her.
Friends admitted that Mr Chen was tired and had been through a traumatic few days. However, if he wakes up on Thursday morning still insistent he wants to leave the country, he will set off a series of unpredictable events that could damage relations between the two biggest economies in the world and President Barack Obama’s standing at home.
The case also highlights a potential split within the Chinese government on how to deal with this latest crisis to the ruling Communist party’s legitimacy in the midst of the worst political upheaval to hit the party in at least two decades.
The new developments are potentially a large embarrassment for the Obama administration just as the general election campaign starts to rev up. Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, has been casting around for ways to demonstrate that Mr Obama is weak on foreign policy and has already called on the administration to do everything it can to protect Mr Chen. Bob Fu, the president of ChinaAid, a US-based Christian group involved in human rights issues, said in a statement that it looked as if the US “has abandoned Mr Chen”.
Sensing that events were spinning out of control, the administration went into overdrive to defend its role in the case. The state department released a series of photos of Mr Chen leaving the embassy where he appeared to be hugging and smiling with senior officials. Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for Asia, said he had held between 30 and 40 hours of conversations with Mr Chen in recent days during which he had insisted on his desire to stay in China and had never once talked of asylum.
US officials said they and Mr Chen had received assurances from the Chinese government that he would be treated humanely while he remained in China, he would be relocated to a “safe environment” to study at university and he would not be charged with any crime.
Their version of events was largely backed up by Jerome Cohen, an American expert on Chinese law and a friend of Mr Chen’s who talked with him extensively on Monday and Tuesday of this week, while he was in the US embassy. He said it was “nonsense” to suggest that Mr Chen had been interested in asylum at that stage.
The Chinese had offered to let him attend law school in one of seven cities, each of which had some facilities for disabled people as well – a deal he described as “one of the most daring diplomatic arrangements we have seen in US-China relations”.
“I think the saddest outcome would be if events transpired now that put Chen at war with the US government that represents his only secure support,” Mr Cohen said. “It could easily happen through confusion.”
Jailed for more than four years in 2006 on trumped-up charges following a show trial because of his legal work representing women who were illegally forced into abortions, on his release Mr Chen was placed under extralegal house arrest with his family in his rural village in eastern China.
Although his treatment was widely reported in the international media and raised on numerous occasions by foreign governments, Beijing had refused to do anything about the situation until his escape last week.
Analysts say that this was most likely because the decision to persecute and silence him was made directly by the country’s powerful security apparatus and no other senior officials dared contradict that decision.
But the political demise of former Communist party scion Bo Xilai last month has weakened hardliners in the regime, especially Mr Bo’s former close ally Zhou Yongkang, who is in charge of the all-pervasive domestic security forces.
“This has larger political implications,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “I can’t see Beijing coming to this decision without disavowing the security apparatus.”
Frank Januzzi, head of the Washington office of Amnesty International, said that the US government needed to hold Beijing responsible for the assurances it had given about Mr Chen. “If it turns out they do not have the authority to do so, that in itself will be instructive,” he said.