Beijing, China – The United States and China appeared on Friday to have brokered a deal allowing blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng and his family to leave the country, a potentially dramatic turnaround in a case that threatened to become a serious blow to the Obama administration.
Chen received a fellowship offer from a U.S. university and the Chinese government agreed to issue him travel documents, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
“The United States government expects that the Chinese government will expeditiously process his applications for these documents, and make accommodations for his current medical condition,” Nuland said. “The United States government would then give visa requests for him and his immediate family priority attention.”
It remained to be seen how China’s authoritarian rulers will handle their end of the bargain – state media on Friday called Chen “a tool and a pawn” of the West. But Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Weimin also released a brief statement saying that Chen could apply to study abroad “just like any other Chinese citizen,” an apparently positive signal about his prospects of leaving for America.
“We are … encouraged by the official statement issued today by the Chinese government confirming that he can apply to travel abroad” to study, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a press conference on Friday night. “Over the course of the day progress has been made to help him have the future that he wants, and we will be staying in touch with him as this process moves forward.”
If all goes according to that plan, it would mark the end a significant crisis between Beijing and Washington.
After six days of hiding at the American embassy in Beijing, Chen on Wednesday decided to enter Chinese custody via a transfer to a local hospital. Beginning that evening, Chen told friends and media that he’d made the choice only because he feared for the safety of his family.
“Chen’s skepticism about the Chinese government’s assurances is perfectly understandable, because despite an increase in government rhetoric, China still lacks a rights-protecting legal system and because the Chinese government did nothing to bring an end to his persecution despite having ample information about it,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, an independent human rights researcher based in Hong Kong.
Chen had been held under extra-judicial house arrest for some 19 months in the eastern province of Shandong, a period in which he said that he and his wife suffered severe beatings by local officials and police. That came after Chen’s September 2010 release from about four years in prison – the formal charges were for destruction of property and assembling a crowd to block traffic, but the sentence was widely understood to be punishment for his advocacy on behalf of women subjected to forced abortions and sterilizations in a local campaign to enforce the nation’s one-child policy.
Chen broke free from the home detention on April 22 in a dramatic escape aided by activists who drove him to Beijing. He entered the U.S. embassy four days later.
The lack of any way to ensure Chen’s wellbeing after the handover on Wednesday quickly became a crisis for U.S. State Department officials who’d brokered an initial agreement that put him back in the hands of the Chinese government with only its promise to guarantee he would be treated well.
The announcement on Friday evening seemed to solve that issue by arranging for Chen, 40, and his family to leave China completely. It was not clear whether that travel would result in an asylum application by Chen. Attempts to reach Chen were unsuccessful, but on Thursday evening he told McClatchy that while he wanted to leave the country “to rest for a period of time,” he would also want to return.
“I haven’t had a weekend in seven years,” he said.
© 2012 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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