Dissident can apply to study abroad, China says

BEIJING — The Globe and Mail

In this photo released by the US Embassy Beijing Press Office, U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke, left, makes a phone call as he accompanies blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, right, in a car en route from the U.S. Embassy to a hospital in Beijing, Wednesday, May 2, 2012. At center is language attache James Brown. (Uncredited/AP)

Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng looked closer to his goal of reaching the United States as the Chinese government said Friday he was welcome to apply to study abroad.

Mr. Chen, a 40-year-old lawyer who sat in on university law classes a decade ago but, because he’s blind, wasn’t allowed to formally enroll, has been offered a fellowship at New York University that would allow him to bring his wife and two young children along with him.

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The Obama administration, under pressure to secure a happy ending for the persecuted human-rights hero who triggered a 10-day-old diplomatic crisis when he briefly took refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing last week, has indicated he will be welcomed with open arms. The remaining question is whether the Chinese government will actually allow one of its most prominent critics to leave the country with his family.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has seen a long-planned trip to Beijing sideswiped by the drama over the fate of the dissident lawyer, hailed as “progress” a statement posted on the website of China’s Foreign Ministry that said Mr. Chen “can, like any other Chinese citizens” apply to study abroad “through normal channels in accordance with the law.”

“The Chinese government has indicated that it will accept Mr. Chen's applications for appropriate travel documents,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “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. The United States government would then give visa requests for him and his immediate family priority attention.”

Among the remaining hurdles to ending the sensitive standoff is the fact Mr. Chen has no passport. Under Chinese law, he would have to return to his native Shandong province and apply for one there through the same local government that first jailed him and then placed him and his family under extralegal house arrest as punishment for his political activism. (Mr. Chen initially earned their ire by highlighting a campaign of forced abortions and the sterilization of women in part of Shandong, where China’s one-child policy was harshly enforced.)

Others worry the framework agreement drawn up with the personal involvement of Ms. Clinton will fall apart once she and the media spotlight that follows her have moved on.

Mr. Chen initially left the protection of the U.S. embassy on Wednesday based on a previous deal with the Chinese government that would have seen him and his family move away from Shandong and attend university in another part of China. However, shortly after leaving the embassy, Mr. Chen said he felt unsafe because of threats against his family and said he wanted to leave the country for asylum in the United States.

Mr. Chen later modified his position again, telling The Globe and Mail in an interview early Friday that he now believed in the sincerity of the Chinese officials he met, who had promised to investigate his allegations of wrongdoings by local authorities in Shandong. Speaking by mobile phone from his room inside Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital, where he is being treated for a foot fracture he suffered during his dramatic escape from forcible confinement that started the entire drama on April 22, Mr. Chen said he was feeling “a bit easier.”

He said he no longer sought permanent asylum in the United States, only a “rest” after which he could return to China. That flexibility helped U.S. and Chinese diplomats draft a solution that might allow both sides to save face.

Zhang Junsai, China’s ambassador to Canada, expressed confidence that China and the United States had “a very mature relationship” and would be able to resolve their differences over Mr. Chen. But, he added, the U.S. actions in the case were “not normal.”

“Our policy is very clear … this is not [the]normal way of doing things from the embassy of the United States in China.” Mr. Zhang told reporters at a conference in Calgary.

Mr. Chen’s case could yet become a weak point in President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign if Mr. Chen is left behind in China to possibly face further persecution after turning to the United States for help. Republican challenger Mitt Romney has already seized on the confusion surrounding Mr. Chen’s departure from the embassy, calling it a “dark day for freedom.”

Meanwhile, a study visa, rather than political asylum, is a more acceptable exit for the Chinese leadership, which is extremely sensitive to criticism of its bleak record on human rights.

“Progress has been made to help [Mr. Chen]have the future that he wants, and we will be staying in touch with him as this process moves forward,” Ms. Clinton said during a brisk, 13-minute press conference at the end of the biannual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

The Chinese side was demonstrably unenthused by the entire affair and the international headlines it made. “Unfortunately, when trying to attract the international spotlight by being violently [sic]against the government, Chen became a political pawn and was used as a tool to work against China's political system by some Western forces,” read an editorial published Friday in the Global Times, a nationalist newspaper connected to the ruling Communist Party.

The same editorial, which was printed before the latest round of talks on Mr. Chen’s fate, also noted “there are many technical obstacles if Chen wants to leave China for the U.S. now.”

Mr. Chen said he’s still worried about the fate of his mother and brothers, who remain in Shandong, as well as those who helped him escape.

He Peirong, the activist who went missing after helping Mr. Chen get from Shandong to Beijing, posted a message on her Twitter account Friday saying she had returned home but did not want to speak to media for the time being. Jiang Tianyong, a lawyer who was snatched by police outside Mr. Chen’s hospital on Thursday, has also returned home but his wife said he suffered hearing loss in both ears after being badly beaten.

“While China and the U.S. negotiated on Chen and his family, Chinese authorities were targeting his friends and supporters,” said Catherine Baber, deputy director for Asia-Pacific at Amnesty International. Ms. Baber said she was “hopeful but not reassured” by the apparent deal to let Mr. Chen study in the United States. “The fate of Chen and his family is far from certain, given that they are not yet safe and free,” she said.

With a report from Carrie Tait

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