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Blind Chinese Human-Rights Activist Already a Focus of Concern in Washington Faces Uncertain Fate

Chen leaves U.S. Embassy after receiving assurances that he will be allowed to live safely in China, but later asks for political asylum, in a day of unexpected developments for the man who has defied China’s 1-child policy.


| Posted 5/3/12 at 11:19 AM

Kent Nishimura-Pool/Getty Images


WASHINGTON — UPDATED MAY 3 8 AM, MAY 2 5:04 PM and at 8:45 AM. (EST) Chen Guangcheng has been on Rep. Chris Smith’s radar for years, though the New Jersey Republican said he never met the blind, self-taught Chinese human-rights lawyer.

Thus, on May 2, after the activist suddenly signaled his desire for asylum in the U.S., Smith echoed the demands of a chorus of voices calling for the Obama Administration to help "ensure that Chen Guangcheng, his family members and all those who have helped him are removed from harm's way and do not suffer any further abuse or retaliation for Chen's bold and courageous efforts to save his family and improve human rights for all in China."

Smith issued his statement late on May 2, asserting that the "durable solution" to Chen's precarious situation is asylum in the United States.He promised to hold an emergency hearing on Capitol Hill May 3 to "underscore and manifest our profound support for Chen and his family."

On May 3, Chen told journalists in Beijing that U.S. officials had not done enough to advocate on his behalf or to make human rights a key part of U.S.-China relations.

But on Thursday morning, as she headed into high-level talks with Chinese officials, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton insisted that "As part of our dialogue, the U.S.raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms." If Beijng respects those rights, she said, it wall be a "stonger partner" for Washington.

During a May 1 interview, Smith called Chen's daring escape from house arrest — days before Clinton’s arrival — a “brilliant stroke, though I am not sure if Chen timed it for when the U.S. diplomats were in Beijing.”

In recent years, the activist has emerged as a folk hero in China, prompting hundreds of his countrymen to try to visit him in his rural home, which is surrounded by a security perimeter. But, last week, Chen fled his farmhouse, where he had undergone 20 months of incarceration and torture, and traveled 370 miles to the capital, eluding state security before reportedly making contact with the U.S. Embassy.

On the morning of May 2, U.S. government officials confirmed that Chen had made a fateful decision to remain in China, He left the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and travelled to a nearby Chinese hospital for treatment. He was reunited there with his wife and children.

But in a day with many twists and turns, fresh reports circulated that Chen had decided to seek political asylum after concluding that his safety and that of his family could not be secured in China.

By then, Clinton had already released a statement confirming the outlines of the reported agreement with the Chinese government.

Clinton 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. I was glad to have the chance to speak with him today and congratulate him on being reunited with his wife and children."

"Mr. Chen has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment." She stressed, "Making this commitment a reality is the next crucial test."

On May 2, news bureaus in Beijing reported that that Chen spent six days in the U.S. Embassy, and that he received assistance from American officials, in part, because of "exceptional circumstances, including his disability." Reportedly, his stay was understood to be "temporary."

Soon after Chen's departure from the embassy, the Chinese government attacked the U.S. officials' decision to offer the activist refuge. And even before Chen signaled his desire to seek asylum, Steven Mosher, the first U.S. scholar to document the Chinese Communist Party's one-child policy, expressed concern about whether Chinese authorities would actually fulfill the pledges they reportedly made to Chen.

"I appaud him for wanting to stay in China and fight the system. God help him," said Mosher, who heads the Virginia-based Population Research Institute.

"What concerns me is that while the U.S. side has said China has given certain assurances, China's foreign ministry spokesman is demanding an apology from the U.S. government and refusing to acknowledge any such understanding," said Mosher, who is fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and Taiwanese and has been monitoring Chinese reaction to the unfolding events.  

In Washington, Chen has long been admired as a courageous figure in the fight to repeal China's one-child-per-family policy. And Rep. Smith noted that the activist had “an enormous following” in China and around the globe. He is a blind man who first got involved in disability rights because China lags in protecting people with disabilities. Then he took on the forced-abortion policy.” 

Now that Chen has broached the possibilty of political asylum, his international visibility could pose serious problems for U.S.-China relations. Smith and other activists will keep up the pressure on the White House, but President Obama has shown no desire, so far, to directly  intervene in the crisis. 

On April 30, amid media speculation about Chen's possible arrival at the U.S. Embassy, Obama defended his administration’s parallel strategy for engaging China on strategic issues while also prodding party leaders on human-rights concerns.

At a White House press conference, the president insisted that “every time we meet with China the issue of human rights comes up,” but in recent public appearances he has refused to directly comment on Chen’s case.


Taboo Subject

Yet activists and China experts who back Chen have challenged the president’s public stance.

“The Obama administration regards Chen as a speed bump on the ‘Clinton-Geithner Road Show to China,’” charged Steven Mosher,  in a reference to the high-level trip to Beijing planned this week for the State and Treasury Department heads.

“They are wrong. His fate is far more important than hawking American treasury bonds. Remember: The one-child policy has touched the lives of every person in China. He may be the spark that starts a prairie fire,” Mosher added.

The Washington Post editorial page has echoed the criticism of human-rights activists who question whether the administration is advancing an effective strategy to secure political and economic reforms in China.

Harry Wu, the executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation and an expert on China’s one-child policy, knows Chen and deeply admires the activist.

“Chen spoke out and didn’t want to give up his campaign against the one-child policy. He is a kind of model for the Chinese, and his story tells the world about what is still going on in China for many years,” said Wu during a telephone interview.

That said, Wu expressed doubt that the United States would actually approve a request for political asylum. On May 2, statements from U.S. officials noted that Chen's stay at the American Embassy in Beijing was understood to be "temporary." 

In Wu's judgement, the U.S. government, as well as many American companies with holdings in China — where the state must approve all foreign investments have skirted the taboo subject of forced abortions and sterilizations, let alone the more predictable violations of political rights that characterize most one-party communist regimes.

However, U.S. companies like Apple have begun to respond to Internet-generated campaigns to improve work conditions in China. Indeed, Chen’s global visibility underscores the transformative impact of information technologies that magnify his campaign to expose the contradictions between the party’s sanitized public image and the grim reality of routine political controls.


Grave ‘Danger’

When reports of Chen's escape first made headlines, Smith, who heads a House subcommittee that deals with human-rights issues, dashed off a letter to Secretary Clinton April 27, urging her to help secure “the safety and well-being of Mr. Chen’s family members, who continue to be held under home confinement, as well as those who have assisted him.”

The fact that government officials have repeatedly and severely beaten Mr. Chen, his wife and his mother during his house arrest … gives rise to justifiable reports that his family members and others associated with him are now in danger,” wrote Smith. The letter was released on April 30.

Two days later, foreign news bureaus in Beijing and human-rights groups published unconfirmed reports that Chen’s family members, along with activists known to have facilitated his improbable escape, had been detained by Chinese authorities.

In his letter to Clinton, Smith expressed relief that the activist had escaped house arrest, but said that he feared Chen and his close relatives remained in grave “danger.”

He also noted that Chen had released a video, posted on the Internet, demanding that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao:

1) thoroughly investigate and punish according to the law those who ordered the abusive treatment of him and his family,

2) ensure the safety of his wife, mother and children, and

3) investigate and punish official corruption related to his home confinement in Linyi village.

During a May1 interview, Smith noted that in past years he had aired concerns about Chen’s plight in a variety of forums, most recently at a November 2011 House subcommittee hearing focused on the government’s brutal treatment of him during his house arrest.

But Smith expressed frustration with the Obama administration’s approach to human-rights issues in China, especially the ongoing enforcement of the one-child policy by state and local authorities.

“There is zero tolerance for people who speak out against this policy, yet this issue is as bad as it has ever been. For a while, there was some public-relations effort suggesting that the policy has been relaxed, especially in Shanghai. But, more recently, the international community has not tried to argue that things have improved.”

In September 2011, Smith led another House subcommittee hearing, “China’s One-Child Policy: The Government’s Massive Crime Against Women and Unborn Babies,” where Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, testified that Chen “amassed evidence that 130,000 forced abortions and involuntary sterilizations were performed on women in Linyi County, Shandong province, in a single year.” (Click here to read her testimony.)


President Obama

Asked to evaluate President Obama’s willingness to back up cautious public statements on Chinese human-rights issues with strong actions, Smith said, “If there was a grade below F, I would give it to the administration.”

Back in January 2011, when Chinese President Hu Jintao participated in a joint press conference with Obama during a state visit to Washington, a reporter asked about the status of human rights in China, and Obama stepped in to deflect the embarrassing question, suggesting that such concerns were less relevant in China.

The Washington Post editorial page criticized the president’s comments, asserting that he offered “perfunctory” excuses for Beijing and appeared to shrug off American responsibility for advancing human rights in China.

In 2009, when Secretary of State Clinton made her first trip to Beijing, she also stirred controversy by appearing to downgrade human-rights concerns. Responding to a reporter’s question about her plans for raising the issue with Chinese authorities, she replied, “We have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate-change crisis and the security crisis.”

This week, Clinton will be asking Chinese leaders to help address perennial concerns, like North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and more recent problems, such as Iran’s emerging nuclear program. Thus, Smith fears that the administration will try to finesse the issues raised by Chen's plight rather than pressing for real reform.

“If Chen is just an irritant to this administration, shame on them,” said Smith. “Chen is the Lech Walesa of China.”

But there’s no denying that this remains a high-wire moment for the Obama administration. In an election year, said Steve Mosher, “the last thing Obama wants is to receive vague assurances from the Chinese government that Chen will be safe, only for the public to learn that he has been thrown in the back of a sedan never to be seen again.”