Chen Guangcheng

Home run

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2012, 12:00am


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The escape of Chen Guangcheng from his home in Shandong province - where he was held illegally under house arrest for 19 months - into the American embassy in Beijing precipitated a crisis between the US and China, one that was to a large extent resolved with both governments focusing on the blind activist's requests.

Chen at first insisted he wished to remain in China with his family. What he wanted, he said, was an opportunity to attend a university since, so far, he had only been able to study law on his own.

The Americans then entered into talks with the Chinese government, which proved remarkably flexible. No doubt the looming visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to take part in high-level talks was an additional incentive.

In the end, virtually all Chen's demands were met. Beijing offered to relocate him and his family to another province, where he would be safe, able to attend law school for free and lead a normal life. He was given a choice of several universities that have blind institutions. He chose Tianjin .

While negotiated with the help of American diplomats, the agreement reached was between Chen and the Chinese government. The US was merely a facilitator.

Chen evidently felt reassured, with the American ambassador on one side and a senior State Department official on the other, each holding his hand, when he left the embassy for the Chaoyang Hospital, where he would meet his wife and children and have his injuries attended to.

But this unprecedented agreement, which would have seen China loosen its security grip on the country, evaporated within hours as Chen learned that his wife had been abused after his escape and other dissidents warned him that China would not keep its word.

With Chen now asking to leave China, American and Chinese officials got to work again and evidently cobbled together another deal. Thus, on Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin confirmed that Chen faces no criminal charges and, as 'a regular citizen', was free to apply to study abroad.

This was followed by the State Department announcing that Chen 'has been offered a fellowship from an American university, where he can be accompanied by his wife and two children'.

But Chen is not home free yet. According to Chinese regulations, he must return to Shandong to apply for a passport, a daunting prospect in view of his experiences there. Since Chen is in hospital, Beijing could waive this rule and offer passports to him and his family in Beijing.

Finally, in the past, the Chinese government has not allowed dissidents to return home, and this no doubt weighs on Chen's mind. If Liu, the foreign ministry spokesman, was to say that Chen, as a 'regular citizen', had the right to return to China whenever he wanted, it would go far to set many minds at ease in China and Washington. It would show how much China has changed and how strong the US-China relationship has grown.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1