The diplomatic crisis over Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng appeared headed for a resolution Friday after China’s foreign ministry suggested Mr. Chen would be allowed to study abroad.
Allowing Mr. Chen to go to the United States on a study visa seems a graceful way out of a saga that still has the potential to badly damage relations between the world’s two superpowers.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Beijing that “progress has been made” in helping Mr. Chen determine his future, after days of negotiations over the activist who fled for six days into the U.S. embassy in Beijing after escaping house arrest.
“We have been very clear and committed to honouring his choices and our values,” Ms. Clinton said of Mr. Chen, who is now in a Beijing hospital and has said he wants to spend time in the United States. “We will continue engaging with the Chinese government on these (human rights) issues at the highest level, putting these concerns at the height of our diplomacy.”
Mr. Chen was at one point demanding political asylum in the U.S., a move that would have been embarrassing to the Chinese government, which claims to be improving its human-rights record. Meanwhile, leaving the blind lawyer behind in China – where he has already endured almost seven years of persecution because of his political activism – had become an increasingly difficult option for the Obama Administration, particularly with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney harshly criticizing the U.S.-brokered deal that convinced Mr. Chen to leave the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
“There are press reports that he wants to study abroad. If it is so, he can apply via the relevant laws and authorities,” foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a press conference in Beijing. “I’m sure the relevant Chinese authorities will handle his application according to the law.”
The outlines of a deal emerged as Ms. Clinton prepared to depart Beijing at the end of the biannual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a mini-summit that has seen its agenda sidelined by the drama over Mr. Chen’s fate.
The two sides, of course, have reached a deal once before this week, one that saw Mr. Chen agree to leave the U.S. Embassy after a six-day stay in return for a guarantee that he would be reunited with his family and allowed to study at a Chinese university without harassment. But briefly after leaving the safety of the diplomatic territory, Mr. Chen said he no longer felt safe, and said he wanted to go to the United States with his family.
But in an interview with The Globe and Mail early Friday morning, Beijing time, Mr. Chen said his worries had eased following a meeting with officials from China’s central government who came to the hospital where he is being treated, as well as phone conversations with American diplomats. He said he still hoped to leave China in order to rest and receive medical treatment, but no longer wanted formal asylum. If he does leave, he said he would do so with the intention of returning to China.
“I want to rest for some time and recover my health,” he said, speaking via a mobile phone that can receive calls but he says does not work when he tries to dial out. “Coming in and out [of China]is a very natural thing. Unless they can’t guarantee my rights as a citizen.”
Most significantly, he said there were signs that the Chinese side intended to honour the agreement under which he agreed to leave the refuge of the U.S. Embassy on Wednesday. That deal, which the U.S. side promised to monitor, was to allow Mr. Chen to live freely with his family and pursue studies in another part of China while an investigation was launched into those who held Mr. Chen and his wife and daughter incommunicado for the past 20 months inside their home in Shandong. That ordeal was seen as extralegal punishment for Mr. Chen’s political activism.