Beijing says Chen can apply to study abroad
A conciliatory move by Beijing yesterday to defuse the diplomatic storm over the fate of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng came just hours after he expressed concerns about his safety in a phone call to a US congressional hearing and asked to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Analysts said a foreign ministry statement saying that Chen could apply to study abroad showed, for the first time, Beijing's willingness to allow the human rights crusader to leave the country.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last night that China agreed to process Chen's travel document application 'expeditiously'.
They said such unusual flexibility appeared to be the face-saving result of intense diplomatic manoeuvring between Washington and Beijing on the sidelines of this week's annual strategic and economic dialogue to limit the damaging fallout from Chen's case. The two days of talks ended in the capital yesterday.
Chen was still confined in the tightly guarded Chaoyang hospital yesterday. 'I can only tell you one thing. My situation right now is very dangerous,' Chen told Associated Press in the morning.
Chen's reaction to Beijing's statement is not known. It added a new twist to a saga that has grabbed international media attention since his astonishing escape from house arrest in Shandong nearly two weeks ago and his mysterious flight to the US embassy in Beijing last week.
Both Beijing and Washington have come under mounting criticism for their handling of the unprecedented episode, especially after Chen dramatically changed his mind and renounced a previous agreement in which he chose to stay in China.
Speaking from his hospital bed via a mobile phone held up to a microphone, Chen told a US congressional hearing focusing on his case that his wife and family had suffered after his escape.
'Now those security officers in my house basically have said, 'We want to see what else Chen Guangcheng can do',' he said in Chinese.
'I want to come to the US for some time of rest. I have not had a rest in 10 years. I'm concerned most right now about the safety of my mother and brothers. I really want to know what's going on with them.'
He also asked to meet Clinton, who was in Beijing for the high-level talks. 'I hope I can get more help from her,' he said. 'Also, I want to thank her face to face.'
Early yesterday morning, one of the supporters who helped Chen escape, Guo Yushan, issued a statement on his behalf, trying to clarify that Chen had no intention of seeking asylum in the US, as overseas media had reported.
'Guangcheng did not say he wants to seek asylum. Instead, he said he wanted to go to the US and rest for a few months. He has already got an offer from a university in New York,' Guo said.
He said Chen also denied accusing US officials of forcing him to leave the embassy, a claim that had force US President Barack Obama's administration to defend itself against accusations of colluding with Beijing and failing to protect the blind activist.
Just a few hours before the foreign ministry issued its statement, Chen said he received a surprise visit at hospital from an unspecified senior central government official.
Chen told Voice of America that the official, a department head, had brought flowers and said he had been sent by the central government. US officials and doctors also visited Chen in the hospital yesterday.
He Peirong, another activist who helped Chen escape from Shandong, said on Twitter yesterday that she had returned to her home in Nanjing after being taken away by security authorities soon after Chen fled his illegal house arrest.
Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, of City University of Hong Kong, said that allowing Chen to leave China was in line with a long-standing policy of sending dissidents and their families into exile.
He said Beijing had taken a conciliatory step now because it believed it had taught the US and Chen lessons after issuing harsh warnings to Washington about its alleged meddling in China's domestic affairs and partially restricting Chen's freedom.
'Beijing has made its points and now it tries to do damage control because it does not want to see the deterioration of Sino-US ties,' he said.
But Cheng also noted that both Beijing and Washington were losers in the dispute. ' This saga has put China in a bad light and exposed to the whole world how bad China's human rights have become.' And Washington had been plunged into a credibility crisis due to its inconsiderate handling of Chen, he said.