China says blind dissident Chen can ask to study abroad
BEIJING, May 4 — China today said blind dissident Chen Guangcheng could apply to study abroad, suggesting an end may be near to a diplomatic crisis that has soured relations between Beijing and Washington.
The announcement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry follows a dramatic and very public appeal by Chen, who spoke by phone to a US congressional hearing on his case, asking to be allowed to spend some time in the United States.
“Chen Guangcheng is currently being treated in hospital,” ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a brief statement.
“If he wants to study abroad, he can apply through normal channels to the relevant departments in accordance with the law, just like any other Chinese citizen.”
The crisis erupted last week when Chen sought refuge in the US embassy. He stayed there for six days until Wednesday when US officials took him to a Beijing hospital after assurances from the Chinese government that he and his family would receive better treatment.
But within hours, Chen, 40, had changed his mind, scuppering what had seemed to be a delicately constructed deal between Chinese and US diplomats to allow him to receive treatment for a broken foot in a Beijing hospital and be reunited with his wife and two small children.
Shortly before the Foreign Ministry announcement, Chen had told Reuters: “My situation here is not very good. I’ve just found out that when friends have come to visit me, they’ve been beaten up.
“As well, for two days I haven’t been able to meet US embassy diplomats. They came here, but they weren’t allowed inside to meet me. I think this situation is very bad.”
The issue has cast a shadow over this week’s visit to Beijing by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for talks intended to improve ties between the two superpowers.
Putting on a brave face, she told Chinese President Hu Jintao today ties were the strongest they had ever been.
But Beijing has publicly derided US meddling in the issue.
One of China’s main official newspapers accused Chen of being a pawn of American subversion of Communist Party power and described US ambassador Gary Locke as a backpack-wearing, Starbucks-sipping troublemaker.
“Chen Guangcheng has become a tool and a pawn for American politicians to blacken China,” the Beijing Daily said.
Chen, in translated comments, also told the congressional hearing that villagers who had helped him were “receiving retribution” and he was most concerned about the safety of his mother and brothers.
“I’m really scared for my other family members’ lives,” he said. “They have installed seven video cameras and are in my house.”
Reporters waiting outside Chen’s hospital today were kept away from the entrance by police.
Two US embassy officials were seen taking bags into the hospital but were prevented from entering Chen’s wing and put the bags on the ground. The bags contained items for Chen, including two mobile phones and some food.
US defends handling of case
US officials have defended their handling of the case, but Republicans and Chen’s supporters were critical, saying the White House must ensure Chen’s safety. He sought refuge in the US embassy after escaping from house arrest in a village in rural Shandong province on April 22.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said if the reports were accurate, the US embassy failed to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would ensure the safety of Chen and his family.
“If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom, and it’s a day of shame of the Obama administration,” Romney said in Virginia as he campaigned for the November election.
Some rights activists were also critical. “We have learned that when people come to the United States embassy they are not in fact 100 per cent safe,” said Reggie Littlejohn, president of the advocacy group Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.
Decision to leave
Chen is a legal activist who campaigned against forced abortions under China’s “one-child” policy.
US officials say Chen left the embassy of his own free will because he wanted to be reunited with his family. They said he wanted to remain in China and had never asked for asylum.
“He knew the stark choices in front of him,” US ambassador Locke told reporters in Beijing yesterday. “He knew and was very aware that he might have to spend many, many years in the embassy. But he was prepared to do that ...
“And he was fully aware of and talked about what might happen to his family if he stayed in the embassy and they stayed in the village in Shandong province.”
The Chen case also comes at a tricky time for China, which is engaged in a leadership change later this year. The carefully choreographed transition has already been jarred by the downfall of ambitious senior Communist Party official Bo Xilai in a scandal linked to the apparent murder of a British businessman. — Reuters