United States and Chinese officials were in talks on Monday over a deal to secure the safe release of escaped Chinese lawyer and activist Chen Guangcheng, rights groups said as a senior U.S. official made an unscheduled visit to Beijing to resolve a looming diplomatic crisis.
Mr. Chen (40), a visually-challenged lawyer who has campaigned against forced abortions, made a dramatic escape last week from more than a year-and-a-half of illegal house arrest in the north-eastern Shandong province.
Rights groups who were in contact with him said he was under the protection of U.S. diplomats in Beijing, though it was unclear whether he was within the premises of the American embassy or elsewhere.
China Aid, a Christian human rights group based in Texas that had been in contact with Mr. Chen, said Chinese and U.S leaders were hoping to resolve the situation before the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton here on Wednesday for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
“The Chinese top leaders are deliberating a decision to be made very soon, maybe in the next 24 to 48 hours,” Bob Fu of China Aid told the Associated Press, adding that both sides were “eager to solve this issue” and “high level talks are currently under way between U.S. and Chinese officials regarding Chen's status”.
U.S. officials have neither confirmed nor denied Mr. Chen's presence at the embassy, and have also been silent about Sunday's arrival in Beijing of Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who was scheduled to land here later in the week.
While U.S. officials have made clear they do not want the case to overshadow Thursday's Strategic and Economic Dialogue, during which they are expected to press for Chinese support on a range of global issues including Iran, Syria and North Korea, the Obama administration is also under domestic pressure to support Mr. Chen.
On Sunday, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney called on the U.S. government “to take every measure” to provide protection to Mr. Chen. “Our country must play a strong role in urging reform in China and supporting those fighting for the freedoms we enjoy,” he said.
Mr. Chen's escape is the second instance in recent months of the U.S. finding itself involved in a sensitive domestic matter in China. In February, a police chief in Chongqing, Wang Lijun, fled to a U.S. Consulate in Chengdu seeking asylum after a falling out with the former Politburo member, Bo Xilai, precipitating a major political scandal.
While the U.S. refused Mr. Wang's requests and expressed reluctance to involve itself in an internal political struggle, it will face greater domestic pressure to sensitively handle the case of Mr. Chen, a renowned lawyer and rights campaigner who has faced persecution.
Mr. Chen rose to national prominence as a self-taught lawyer. He was, however, imprisoned in 2006 for four years on account of his legal activism after he represented hundreds of women who had forced abortions at the hands of authorities in Linyi, Shandong. Local officials placed Mr. Chen, his wife and son in extrajudicial house arrest upon his release in 2010.
On Monday, concerns grew over the safety of Mr. Chen's family and activists who had helped arrange his escape. Mr. Chen's wife and son are still in Dongshigu village while Mr. Chen's brother and nephew are thought to be in police custody.
Activists who have been in touch with Mr. Chen said he was not in favour of seeking asylum in the U.S. — it is also unclear if China would agree to such a request — and his primary concern is thought to be his family's safety. In a video message posted online, Mr. Chen called on Premier Wen Jiabao to ensure his family's protection and for local officials in Shandong to be brought to justice for his illegal detention.
Nanjing-based activist He Peirong, who drove Mr. Chen to safety in Beijing, was taken away by police this weekend, while Hu Jia, another activist who met Mr. Chen in Beijing last week following his escape, was also detained and questioned by police. Mr. Hu said he was asked whether Mr. Chen had met with U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, leading to suggestions that the lawyer had, in fact, been at the U.S. Embassy at some point following his escape last week.