Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng made a dramatic plea to US lawmakers from his Beijing hospital bed Thursday, phoning in to a congressional hearing to ask for help to travel to the United States.
"I really am fearing for my family members' lives," said the blind activist, who escaped from house arrest and spent six days at the US embassy in Beijing until leaving on Wednesday.
"The thing I'm most concerned with now is the safety of my mother and my brother," he said, speaking through a mobile phone held up to the hearing as a friend translated from Mandarin into English.
"I really want to know what's going on with them."
In extraordinary scenes in the wood-paneled room of a congressional building on Capitol Hill, Chen, 40, appealed directly to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is currently in Beijing for previously scheduled talks.
"I want to meet with Secretary Clinton. I hope I can get more help from her," Chen told Representative Chris Smith, who chaired the hearing on Chen's case, as stunned witnesses and reporters looked on.
The United States has scrambled to contain a growing diplomatic row over the blind activist, who riled Chinese authorities by exposing forced abortions and sterilizations under the "one-child" policy.
US officials said Chen left the embassy after Beijing pledged he and his family would be treated "humanely."
But Chen, a self-taught lawyer, has since said he felt under pressure to go, fearing for the safety of his family, who suffered repeated abuses at the hands of local officials in their hometown in the eastern province of Shandong.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Chen and his wife had made it clear Thursday they no longer wanted to stay in China during two conversations by telephone and a separate call with his wife.
"It is clear now that in the last 12 to 15 hours, they as a family have had a change of heart on whether they want to stay in China," Nuland said.
"We need to consult with them further, get a better sense of what they want to do, and together consider their options."
White House spokesman Jay Carney, facing a barrage of questions about Chen, sidestepped the issue, saying only that President Barack Obama would continue to make human rights a priority of a "broad" relationship with China.
US State Department officials have been adamant that Chen never requested asylum and strongly denied allegations that he was pressured to leave the embassy.
Chen told lawmakers he wanted his "freedom of travel guaranteed," because he wanted to "come to the United States for some time of rest," according to friend and supporter Bob Fu, who was translating the call.
Fu, the founder of US-based rights group ChinaAid, told the commission that the United States may have rushed the negotiations over Chen and Washington now needed to rectify the situation.
"Secretary Clinton, this is the moment to deliver -- at least deliver what you have promised, what you have repeatedly said in the last few years... to see Chen and his family in freedom and safety," Fu said.
He also said Chen has not asked for asylum, but he wants "to come to the US for rest or visiting or medical treatment."
"We are praying for you and we will be unceasing in our efforts," said Smith, who had a separate private talk with Chen before putting him on speaker before the commission.
Republican Congressman Frank Wolf told AFP that it was "very powerful that Chen asked the secretary to come get him. He wanted her to come and rescue him."
"As the news cycle unfolded yesterday, what began as a purported diplomatic triumph devolved into a diplomatic fiasco," Wolf said.
The Obama administration "has a high moral obligation to protect Chen and his family. To do anything less would be scandalous," Wolf said.
In an interview, Chen said he did not initially want to seek asylum overseas, but changed his mind after emerging from the embassy due to concern for his safety and that of his family.
"I want to go overseas. I want the US to help me and my family. They helped me before," he said. "I don't feel safe here. I want to leave."
He also told The Daily Beast website that he wanted to leave China with Clinton, who has repeatedly criticized Chen's treatment in the past.
Chen's flight came despite round-the-clock surveillance at his house in Shandong, where the activist has alleged that he and his family suffered severe beatings after he completed a four-year jail term in 2010.
At Thursday's opening of the two-day Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing, Clinton did not single out Chen, but told her Chinese hosts, including President Hu Jintao, that they cannot deny the "aspirations" of their citizens "for dignity and the rule of law."
However, in his own opening remarks, Hu called for the United States and China to respect each other's concerns and warned any worsening of relations posed "grave" risks for the world.