Dissident to stay in China, Beijing denounces US meddling
UPDATED @ 09:46:32 PM 02-05-2012
BEIJING, May 2 — Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng left the US Embassy in Beijing today after winning striking concessions from Communist Party authorities that will keep him as a pivotal figure in China-US relations.
Chen’s dramatic escape from house arrest and his flight to the US Embassy have already made him a symbol of resistance to China‘s shackles on dissent, and the deal struck between Washington and Beijing to have him remain in China will ensure he stays an international test case of how tight or loose those shackles remain.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the blind Chen, who escaped the watch of the world’s biggest internal security apparatus, had left the embassy of his own will, criticising the United States for meddling in the affair.
Washington has said it will watch his treatment closely, and any effort by Beijing to fetter his activities could provide a new source of contention.
But it is far from certain that Chinese authorities, especially nervous with a leadership succession later this year, will grant him free rein.
Chen had not requested asylum or safe passage to the United States days after a daring escape from house arrest on April 21, a US official said.
“I am pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng’s stay and departure from the US Embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Beijing where she had arrived hours earlier for this week’s top-level US-China talks.
“(Chen) has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment. Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task. The United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr. Chen and his family in the days, weeks and years ahead.”
The drama over Chen, who was driven to a Beijing hospital accompanied by US Ambassador Gary Locke, threatens to overshadow this week’s US-China talks.
Quite apart from the importance of developing ties between the world’s two largest economies, both governments are aware of the impact the case could have on their domestic politics.
Later this year, US President Barack Obama will seek a second term, knowing that his Republican foes are already accusing him of being too soft on China. They may now criticise him for not doing enough to ensure the activist’s safety.
Also later this year, China’s ruling Communist Party will bring in a new set of leaders, a normally well choreographed process that has been wrong-footed by a scandal enveloping senior leader Bo Xilai. That too was triggered after a senior Bo aide sought refuge in a US diplomatic mission.
Some analysts said the issue appears to have divided the top leadership and may have upset hardliners who want to keep a firm lid on anything they see as undermining Party rule.
“As soon as you lighten the pressure on dissidents or political activists, a herd of them are going to wake up and are going to stand up,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China political expert at Hong Kong’s Baptist University.
Chinese public anger
The Chinese Foreign Ministry‘s first public reaction was anger.
“The US method was interference in Chinese domestic affairs, and this is totally unacceptable to China. China demands that the United States apologise over this, thoroughly investigate this incident, punish those who are responsible, and give assurances that such incidents will not recur,” ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a statement.
Rights lawyer Teng Biao said he had spoken briefly with Chen’s wife, Yuan Weijing, and said that both she and their two children were now in Beijing.
He had no details on how they had been treated since Chen escaped.
“I think the outcome has been positive for China’s human rights situation,” said Li Fangping, a Beijing lawyer who has defended dissidents and protesters. “... it shows that the international community has a role to play in cases like this.”
Censors were still blocking searches for Chen’s name on China‘s wildly popular Twitter-like service Weibo, but many people were able to skirt restrictions by simply calling him “the blind lawyer”.
“I’ve beaten the censors to find out about this great event - respect to the blind lawyer,” wrote one user.
“The blind lawyer has broken out from the stockade to freedom. So gratifying,” added another.
As for Chen himself, he was in high spirits. A US official quoted him as telling Clinton by phone: “I want to kiss you.” — Reuters