Pressure to resolve fate of blind Chinese activist who escaped arrest

United States and Chinese officials were expected to decide soon on the fate of a blind lawyer and rights activist, believed to have fled to the US Embassy in Beijing, before Thursday's start of US-China talks.
The blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, left, meets with fellow activist Hu Jia at an undisclosed location recently. Chen escaped house arrest on April 22 and is believed to be at a secret location in Beijing.
The blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, left, meets with fellow activist Hu Jia at an undisclosed location recently. Chen escaped house arrest on April 22 and is believed to be at a secret location in Beijing.

BEIJING // United States and Chinese officials were expected to decide soon on the fate of a blind lawyer and rights activist, believed to have fled to the US Embassy in Beijing, before Thursday's start of US-China talks.

The two governments are understood to want a speedy resolution to the case of Chen Guangcheng, whose daring escape from house arrest followed a long-running campaign of harassment by the local authorities.

A decision was expected "maybe in the next 24 to 48 hours", said Bob Fu, of the Texas-based rights group ChinaAid, yesterday.

Mr Fu is a former teacher at a Communist Party academy in Beijing whose advocacy group focuses on the rights of Christians in China. He said Washington and Beijing were keen to prevent Mr Chen's case from overshadowing talks that include Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state. Mr Fu, who has been a point of contact for people helping Mr Chen, said he offered to help the dissident leave China through "a sort of underground railroad".

Mr Chen, 40, a self-trained lawyer who highlighted abuses such as forced abortions and sterilisations linked to China's one-child policy, had been under house arrest at his home in Shandong province, south-east of Beijing, since his release from prison in September 2010. He had served four years for damaging property and disrupting traffic, charges supporters say were politically motivated.

Just more than a week ago, he escaped his heavily-guarded home and made his way to the capital.

Neither the Americans nor the Chinese have officially confirmed his whereabouts, although he is said to be under the protection of US diplomats.

Mr Chen, blind since childhood and married with a young son, released a video addressed to the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, asking for his case to be dealt with fairly and according to the rule of law. Reports indicated he wished to remain in China.

After Mr Chen's flight, the Chinese authorities rounded up a string of his family members and activist associates, although some have since been released.

A US assistant secretary of state, Kurt Campbell, arrived in Beijing on Sunday, likely to negotiate with Chinese officials before Mrs Clinton and the US treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, arrive for Thursday's talks.

The European Union has repeatedly raised Mr Chen's case and its office in Beijing issued a statement yesterday calling for China to extend legal protections to him, his family and supporters. "We call on the Chinese authorities to exercise utmost restraint in dealing with the matter, including avoiding harassment of his family members or any person associated with him," the statement said.

Joseph Cheng, a political analyst at the City University of Hong Kong, said the chances of a quick settlement to the case "are strong".

"There's no point in allowing the incident to damage the strategic dialogue," he said. "The Chinese authorities certainly would like to engage in some kind of damage control strategy. At the same time, the American government does not want to further embarrass China."

For Beijing, the issue is sensitive because Mr Chen enjoys broad sympathy among the Chinese public for persevering in his activism despite being blind and despite repeated reprisals from local officials.

It seems likely that the United States would be grant Mr Chen asylum. Mrs Clinton has in the past called for him to be released from house arrest, while Mitt Romney, the Republican set to contest this November's presidential election, has urged the Obama administration to ensure Mr Chen is protected.

During their talks on Thursday and Friday, Washington and Beijing will be looking to secure cooperation this week over issues including the Iranian nuclear programme, North Korea and Taiwan.

The last Chinese dissident to be granted refuge in the US embassy in China was Fang Lizhi, an astrophysicist and pro-democracy campaigner who, along with his wife, spent more than a year at the diplomatic mission after fleeing there following the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Mr Fang, allowed to leave China just over a year later and settled in the US, where he died a month ago at 76.

dbardsley@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting from Associated Press

Published: May 1, 2012 04:00 AM

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