Activists dispute America-China version on dissident lawyer Chen's deal

Chen Guangcheng at the Chaoyang hospital in Beijing on Wednesday.

Chen Guangcheng at the Chaoyang hospital in Beijing on Wednesday.   | Photo Credit: Jordan Pouille

A brewing diplomatic crisis that threatened to derail crucial talks between China and the U.S. this week appeared to be averted on Wednesday after Chinese activist and lawyer Chen Guangcheng left the American embassy in Beijing following a six-day stand-off with Chinese authorities.

Mr. Chen agreed to leave the embassy following assurances from Chinese officials that the safety of his family would be guaranteed, said U.S. officials, though the terms of his release were immediately questioned by several Chinese activists who said the visually challenged rights campaigner had been threatened by authorities and forced to accept their conditions.

American officials, including Ambassador to China Gary Locke, accompanied Mr. Chen to Beijing's Chaoyang hospital on Wednesday afternoon for medical treatment, hours after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived here for Thursday's Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

Mr. Chen's case had in recent days threatened to overshadow the talks, during which both sides were looking to build trust on a number of delicate issues ranging from trade to North Korea and Iran.

Ms. Clinton, who will meet Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo on Thursday, said she was “pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng's stay and departure from the U.S. embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values”. She said Mr. Chen had reached “a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment”.

Chinese officials are expected to raise the issue in Thursday's talks.

U.S. slammed

In its first comments on Mr. Chen's escape from Dongshigu village in Shandong, the Foreign Ministry strongly hit out at the U.S. for taking in Mr. Chen, who had escaped last week following more than a year and a half of illegal house arrest imposed following a four-year jail term he served on account of his activism against forced abortions.

“What the U.S. side has done has interfered in the domestic affairs of China, and the Chinese side will never accept it,” spokesperson Liu Weimin was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency, adding that China demanded an apology from the U.S. for taking in Mr. Chen “via abnormal means”.

State Department officials at a background briefing appeared to rule out making any kind of apology, saying “this was an extraordinary case involving exceptional circumstances, and we do not anticipate that it will be repeated”.

They said they had received assurances from the Chinese government that Mr. Chen and his family “will be relocated to a safe environment so that he may attend a university to pursue a course of study.” Mr. Chen had spoken briefly with Ms. Clinton over a telephone call, and expressed his gratitude for her support, saying “I want to kiss you”.

This detail was one of several put forward by U.S. officials that was questioned by Chinese activists who had been in contact with Mr. Chen. Chinese activist Zeng Jinyan said Mr. Chen only said, “I want to see her”.

Ms. Zeng also said Mr. Chen was also not entirely happy with the conditions of his release, and had initially sought asylum in the U.S. for himself and his family. She said he was forced to leave the embassy after Chinese authorities threatened to send his wife back to their village in Shandong and continue the ill-treatment she had received in recent days following his escape, including beatings.

Ms. Zeng told The Hindu she could not provide further details and expressed concern over her safety.

American officials, however, stressed that “Mr. Chen made clear from the beginning that he wanted to remain in China and that he wanted his stay in the United States embassy to be temporary.”

New details emerged on Wednesday about Mr. Chen's daring escape. State department officials said the lawyer, who lost his sight as a child, climbed over eight walls in getting to safety. He sustained several injuries as he clambered over fields and forests to evade the hundred or so security personnel who had been posted to watch over his home.

Mr. Chen was subsequently escorted to Beijing by a network of activists. Concerns for the safety of several people who were involved in his escape grew on Wednesday, though both U.S. and Chinese officials made no mention whether their protection would also be guaranteed.

He Peirong, a Nanjing-based activist who picked up Mr. Chen and drove him to Beijing, was taken away by police for questioning last week. She has not been heard from in several days. At least two of Mr. Chen's relatives — his brother and nephew — are also in police custody.

On Wednesday afternoon, a crowd of journalists gathered outside the gates of Beijing's Chaoyang hospital for a glimpse of Mr. Chen, who was seen in a wheelchair. But for many of the Chinese passersby, the identity of the patient was a mystery amid a silence from state media over his case. “Who is Chen Guangcheng?” asked a middle-aged woman, while her two companions also confessed ignorance. “Is he a national leader?” she asked.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 11:35:24 AM |

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