The fate of the blind and self-taught legal advocate Chen Guangcheng and his family was under the spotlight as US Secretary for State Hillary Clinton visited China last week for the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing.
As of today, his future remains uncertain. Despite reports that he would be allowed to study overseas at New York University, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has only stated that like any other citizen, Chen could apply for permission to study abroad through normal channels.
Chen, 40, earned headlines on April 22 by escaping from his home in Dongshigu village, where he was under house arrest, with the help of fellow villagers and others sympathetic to his situation.
He turned up at the US embassy in Beijing on April 26, only to leave six days later accompanied by US Ambassador Gary Locke to receive treatment for a leg injury at hospital.
The exact circumstances surrounding his departure from the US embassy remain obscure, with speculation stirring about whether the US had brokered a deal with Chinese authorities to return Chen.
Locke explained that Chen made no request for political asylum and that he wanted to study in China.
But Chen’s description of events differed. He said he agreed to leave the embassy only after receiving threatening messages from Chinese officials that his wife Yuan Weijing would be beaten to death and their two children would be sent back to Shandong if he refused to leave the embassy.
Chen later said that out of concern for his family’s safety, he wanted to go to the US to “take a break.”
Chen has consistently attracted media attention in the past, including a much publicized visit from actor Christian Bale, star of the Batman films, who was roughly turned away by security officers when he attempted to gain access to the dissident’s home last December.
Chen has provided legal assistance to women villagers to expose the practice of forced abortions by local officials attempting to enforce the one-child policy.
In 2006 Chen was sentenced to more than four years in prison on charges of “assembling a crowd to disrupt transport” and “intentional destruction of property.”
His family endured round the clock surveillance, and after his release in September 2010, they remained under strict scrutiny by security officials.
They were also cut off from the outside world for nearly two years, except for a video of the family that was released on the internet in February last year.
Chen and his wife were reportedly beaten by security officers and their home was raided in the wake of the video leak.
Considering all these factors, and in light of Chen’s reported request to leave China aboard Clinton’s plane, his desire to leave China is understandable.
He has been beaten and imprisoned for his human rights work, and he has no reason to trust the promises of Chinese authorities that he and his family would be safe in China.
The US government’s handling of the situation has attracted wide criticism, with some saying President Barack Obama has done nothing to resolve the situation and that Clinton merely spoke to Chen on the telephone to show her support.
But the US had nothing to say about the Nanjing blogger He Peirong, nicknamed “Pearl,” who was detained for one week after news of Chen’s escape spread online, or the interrogation of Beijing human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong and the blocking of supporters from visiting Chen in hospital, all reported in the international press.
In the days following Clinton’s departure from China on May 5, we have already seen moves by Chinese authorities to increase restrictions on Chen yet again. US embassy officials were prevented from visiting Chen in hospital and were only allowed to meet his wife.
Questions linger at this critical moment over how the US will pressure China to ensure that Chen and his family have the opportunity to go to the US if that is what they want.
If efforts to secure Chen’s safe passage out of China fail, this would not only be a diplomatic disaster for the US but would have a chilling effect on the human rights movement in China.
Patrick Poon is the convenor of the China affairs committee of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission
Blind activist ‘leaves US embassy’
Officials arrest escaped activist’s nephew