Editor's note: Bei Ling, an exiled Chinese poet and essayist, is the founder and executive director of Independent Chinese PEN Center.
(CNN) -- On Wednesday night, Chen Guangcheng's cell phone stopped working. The only means that the blind Chinese human rights lawyer, his wife, Yuan Weijing, and their two children had of connecting with those outside Beijing Chaoyang Hospital was cut off.
This was less than 12 hours after Chen left the U.S. Embassy in Beijing accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and other diplomats on his way to the hospital.
According to Chen's lawyer, Teng Biao, it wasn't until 8:45 p.m., after an official from the U.S. Embassy called the hospital asking that a meal be delivered, that Chen and his family were able to have dinner. The meal should have been delivered to the ward much earlier.
What is even more worrisome is that Chen's cell phone was disconnected after he called the U.S. Embassy for help at 10 p.m. and no one answered.
One thing is certain: Chen and his family once again fear for their safety.
I won't comment on whether Chen left the U.S. Embassy in Beijing of his own volition. When he's free, he can address this question himself. There will also be no shortage of evaluation of the U.S. government's decision, including its conflicting priorities of defending human rights and advancing national interests.
But as a father and husband, if Chen could not be with his wife and children and protect them, he certainly couldn't be expected to choose to stay in the U.S. Embassy or flee to the United States as a political refugee.
So the question is: Will Chen get any real freedom now?
Perhaps the situation will not be like his home in Shandong province where Chen's personal safety was in permanent jeopardy. But surveillance, wiretapping and random threats will follow him everywhere like a shadow. Thugs hired at 100 yuan a day by the local government will be replaced by state-level public security officers fully equipped with high-tech monitoring cameras and recorders. Just because the Chinese government made oral and written promises regarding the future of Chen and his family does not mean that they will be able to live a life free of watchful eyes.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said: "Mr. Chen has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment. Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task. The United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr. Chen and his family in the days, weeks and years ahead."
Regardless of how busy Clinton is with high-level meetings during her time in Beijing, the well-being of Chen and his family must be a priority.
A mere telephone conversation isn't enough. What Chen expressed in his broken English, "I want to see you," should not be misconstrued as "I want to kiss you." Clinton must visit him, his wife and children as early as possible. And during the visit, she must reiterate the promise to Chen and the international community that "the United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr. Chen and his family."
She should tell Chen in person that the American government is committed to the safety of him and his family in China, and that they should have the freedom of movement -- the most important freedom to him -- and freedom to express opinions publicly. To that end, they should have telephone and Internet access, and unblocked communication with the outside world.
Regardless of where Chen goes in China in the coming days, weeks and years, the U.S. Embassy should regularly visit him and his family to ensure that they are indeed safe and free. At the very least, the American government should feel responsible for Chen.
This is a serious test for Clinton in her role as secretary of state and as guardian of American values of human rights and freedom.
This essay was translated from Chinese by Scott Savitt.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bei Ling.