KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Blind dissident Chen Guangcheng’s dramatic escape from house arrest in China has led to his seeking asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Chen, 40, was imprisoned last week due to his opposition to China’s one-child policy, which includes forced abortions and sterilizations.
Chen escaped April 22 from his heavily guarded farmhouse in Shandong province. The whereabouts and well-being of his family and several associates remains unconfirmed, although there have been reports that some family members have been arrested by Chinese authorities.
“The Chinese government has reacted predictably, with a show of strength, by detaining a number of Chen’s relatives and friends, and we are deeply concerned for their welfare,” said Andrew Johnston, advocacy director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a London-based organization “working for religious freedom through advocacy and human rights, in the pursuit of justice,” according to its website.
With U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed to Beijing for meetings Thursday, Chen’s bid for refuge inside the U.S. Embassy could, on the face if it, create a breach between the two countries.
But according to China Aid, a Texas-based group that assists China’s hard-pressed dissidents and religious-freedom advocates — and which says it offered Chen a route to the U.S. using an “underground railroad” via rural China and Thailand — a deal is likely in the coming days.
In what might be a path for the two most powerful economies in the world to avoid a public showdown, a China Aid spokesman told the Register that Beijing “will most probably agree [to] let Chen leave for the USA, in the name of medical treatment.”
U.S. officials, including Clinton, have raised Chen’s case publicly in recent times, and the State Department’s senior-most diplomat working on East Asia, Kurt Campbell, arrived in China April 29 to try to smooth the way for the Clinton visit in the wake of Chen’s brazen flight from captivity.
China Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said April 28 that he did not believe the Chen case would “occupy much time” at the talks, which will likely focus on economic and strategic issues. With China undergoing a leadership transition this year, as Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao step aside, and with the U.S. needing Chinese backing on issues such as Iran’s apparent nuclear ambitions and North Korean aggression, the China Aid spokesman predicts that both countries are unlikely to let the issue stymie Clinton’s visit.
Chen’s case could heighten domestic political problems for China’s rulers, however, coming before the leadership transition later this year. Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s Johnston says that Chen has been able to speak to some of China’s dissidents and has also released a video detailing his house arrest since September 2010, which apparently involved harsh treatment of the human-rights activist and his family.
Johnston told the Register in an email that “China’s use of house arrest in these situations, though legal under Chinese law, is controversial, particularly as, often, whole families are detained, and Chen’s escape will further shine a spotlight on the many other activists being held in similar circumstances, for example Ai Wei Wei.”
Chen’s escape comes soon after the purging of Bo Xilai, a high-ranking party official whose wife has been implicated in the murder of Neil Heywood, a British national who was close to Bo. In February, the United States was dragged into the affair briefly, when a Chinese official secretly waited outside the American Consulate in Chengdu to speak to U.S. officials.
Evidence he claimed to possess apparently later contributed to Xilai’s removal and linked his wife to the death of Heywood. U.S. authorities subsequently released the man to the Chinese authorities in Beijing, but it is unlikely that the same will happen with Chen, who has a remarkable personal story.
“He is particularly well known for exposing a mass campaign of forced sterilizations and abortions in the region where he lived, human-rights abuses that are related to China’s one-child policy,” said Johnston, adding that Chen — blind since birth — was illiterate until his 20s, but still taught himself law and sought to spotlight China’s one-child-policy abuses.
Chen can now add a daring flight from house arrest in one of the world’s most tightly controlled political systems to his life story. The details of his escape appear to involve several months of careful planning by a network of friends and fellow dissidents, with Chen scaling a wall outside his closely watched house, possibly with the assistance of a sympathetic guard, before finding his way to a rendezvous point overnight, from where he was taken to Beijing by He “Pearl” Peirong, who reportedly has been arrested.
Since his flight, journalists trying to get close to Chen’s family home — where he was kept under house arrest since September 2010 after spending four years in prison — have been turned away and tailed by security personnel.
While Chen was under house arrest, hundreds of Chinese sought to visit, as did Hollywood actor Christian Bale, but most were forcibly prevented from getting near Chen’s house.
Register correspondent Simon Roughneen is based in Southeast Asia.