Chen Guangcheng

This combination of three file photos shows some of the Chinese activists and dissidents who have commented on the Chen Guangcheng incident. From left to right

BEIJING — On Thursday, legal activist Chen Guangcheng told the United States that he wants to leave China, deepening a diplomatic dispute. His case has drawn comments from other prominent Chinese activists and dissidents — both to Chen directly and in other forums.

TENG BIAO, human rights lawyer and Chen’s friend, in a phone call to the activist urging him to leave:
“You know that if you don’t leave this time, perhaps in the short term they won’t dare to do anything, but the revenge will be very terrible. It is not as simple as four years’ imprisonment or house arrest for 2 1/2 years. Their torture will be very frightening, very unbearable. ... The government hates you. ... We understand very well that you don’t want to leave. You would like to stay and try to do something. But you have to understand that you will not be able to do anything if you stayed. ... You’ve already done so many things and made so many sacrifices for China’s human rights and freedom. We all don’t want to see you make even more sacrifices.”

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LI JINSONG, Chen’s lawyer, paints a more optimistic picture of what he imagines the activist’s life might be like if he stayed in China:
“The power of those gangster-like officials who once persecuted Chen Guangcheng, like the city party secretary and public security bureau director in Shandong, can by no means challenge the power of the central government or continue to hurt Chen Guangcheng. So I think his personal safety has absolute protection. And his freedom, within his regular life, is guaranteed too. I mean, for the family to stay together, freely work and freely live their life, there should be no problem. But for him to accept media interviews and freely defend human rights and receive petitioners, I don’t think he really has total freedom to do those things.”

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AI WEIWEI, dissident artist:
“I think the U.S. side has made efforts on this issue but they probably don’t wish to see this issue stretch on or become more complicated. ... Of course for him personally, by running to the U.S. Embassy he is looking for some kind of protection. But his is not an isolated incident; it is tied into China-U.S. relations. And regardless of what happens, both sides will pursue their own interests. If the family’s security can be ensured and they can live safely, I believe Chen Guangcheng would still be willing to live in China. But if he doesn’t trust any of this — and he has enough reason not to trust them, because a lot of people’s situations are not good — then of course we can only see how things develop.”

LIU SHASHA, an activist who tried several times to visit Chen in the past year while he was still under house arrest, says he should stay to keep fighting:
“We worked so hard and suffered so many beatings in order for Guangcheng to be able to come out and work together with us. We hoped that Guangcheng could freely walk in his hometown, in his motherland. Not for him to be forced into exile, to leave the prison of his home for the spiritual prison of being barred from his homeland. A free Guangcheng must first be free in his own country!”

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HU JIA, fellow activist and a close friend, said earlier this week before Chen left the embassy that if Chen left the country the injustice he suffered would go unpunished:
“Even if his family — that is, his wife, mother and children — were able to travel with him to the U.S., there would be no one to pursue those past injustices. In other words, the abuse and persecution he suffered would have been for nothing. Those criminal government officials would continue to act in an unfettered way, above the law. They would not have to shoulder any responsibility for their crimes. I feel that the Chen Guangcheng incident should be seen as an important opportunity, so I think there should be no rush, he should not hastily go to the United States, because from what I understand from meeting with him, I think that that is also not his personal desire and it’s not what we think is the best way for him either.”

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YU JIE, a dissident writer and friend of Chen’s who left China for exile in the United States last year after being detained and tortured by Chinese authorities, says he supports Chen’s decision to leave:
“It is a better choice for him if he and his family are able to go to America. He has already left the embassy, and I think that was a very dangerous decision. I think the American officials have done a bad job. They should be aware that the danger that Chen Guangcheng faces in the future is very large. They should not have let him leave the embassy. ... It’s a sign of the softness of Obama’s attitude toward China. He has placed trade above human rights. One cannot blame Chen Guangcheng for changing his mind because in the days that he was in the embassy he was not able to talk to his friends to obtain more information, so on his own it would have been difficult for him to make an accurate assessment.”

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HUANG QI, a veteran activist who runs a rights monitoring group in the western province of Sichuan, says Chen is just one of many people in China who need the international community’s support:
“We believe that in today’s China, what happens to the millions of rights defending petitioners, the Falun Gong practitioners, the religious sufferers, and the political dissidents is still worthy of our in-depth attention. In this huge group of victims there are a lot of people who are still suppressed by the authorities, they are also in urgent need of international attention. Only when the whole society pays attention to the human rights situation in China, particularly long-term concern for the victims at the lowest levels of society, toward the weak ones who have no rights, no influence, no fame, only then can one truly promote the in-depth development of China’s human rights movement and improve the rights situation.”

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LIU XIAOYUAN, a prominent rights lawyer in eastern China’s Jiangxi province who has represented many dissidents including Ai Weiwei:
“This incident should not have happened in the first place. If China is really a country with rule of law, then how could a local government use illegal tactics to hold a person under house arrest for so long? This incident might prompt high-level officials in charge of so-called ‘stability maintenance’ to stop further restricting activists after they have been released from prison, because this will generate public attention and the activists will escape and seek help from foreign embassies. I hope the authorities will learn these lessons from this incident.”

 

Printed on Friday, May 4, 2012 as: Chinese dissidents discuss Chen case

BEIJING — The blind Chinese dissident who boldly fled house arrest and placed himself under the wing of U.S. diplomats balked Wednesday at a deal delicately worked out between the two countries to let him live freely in China, saying he now fears for his family’s safety unless they are all spirited abroad.

After six days holed up in the U.S. Embassy, as senior officials in Beijing and Washington tussled over his fate, Chen Guangcheng left the compound’s protective confines Wednesday for a nearby hospital for treatment of a leg injury suffered in his escape. A shaken Chen told The Associated Press from his hospital room that Chinese authorities had warned he would lose his opportunity to be reunited with his family if he stayed longer in the embassy.

U.S. officials verified that account. But they adamantly denied his contention that one American diplomat had warned him of a threat from the Chinese that his wife would be beaten to death if he did not get out of the embassy.

“I think we’d like to rest in a place outside of China,” Chen told the AP, appealing again for help from Washington. “Help my family and me leave safely.”

Only hours earlier, U.S. officials said they had extracted from the Chinese government a promise that Chen would join his family and be allowed to start a new life in a university town in China, safe from the rural authorities who had abusively held him in prison and house arrest for nearly seven years.

That announcement had been timed to clear up the matter before strategic and economic meetings start Thursday between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts — and to show the U.S. standing firm in its defense of human rights in China while engaging on
other issues.

Clinton spoke to Chen on the phone when he left the embassy and, in a statement, welcomed the resettlement agreement as one that “reflected his choices and our values.”

But the murky circumstances of Chen’s departure from the embassy, and his sudden appeal to leave China after declaring he wanted to stay, again threatened to overshadow talks that were to focus on the global economic crisis and hotspots such as North Korea, Iran, Syria and Sudan.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry signaled its unhappiness with the entire affair, demanding that the U.S. apologize for giving Chen sanctuary at the embassy.

“What the U.S. side has done has interfered in the domestic affairs of China, and the Chinese side will never accept it,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a statement.

Chen, 40, became an international human rights figure and inspiration to many ordinary Chinese after running afoul of local government officials for exposing forced abortions carried out as part of China’s one-child policy. He served four years in prison on what supporters said were fabricated charges, then was kept under house arrest with his wife, daughter and mother, with the adults often being roughed by officials and his daughter searched and harassed.

Blinded by childhood fever but intimately familiar with the terrain of his village, Chen slipped from his guarded farmhouse in eastern China’s Shandong province at night on April 22. He made his way through fields and forest, along roads and across a narrow river to meet the first of several supporters who helped bring him to Beijing and the embassy — his guards unaware for three days that he was gone.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner disputed Chen’s claim that he was left alone by the Americans at the hospital.

“There were U.S. officials in the building,” the spokesman told reporters. “I believe some of his medical team was in fact with him at the hospital.” He said U.S. officials would continue visiting Chen while he was there.

Chen's supporters in the U.S. called on Clinton to meet him directly, and one of them, Republican Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey, said it appeared the resettlement agreement “seems to have been done under significant duress.”

“If ever there was a test of the U.S. commitment to human rights, it should have been at that moment, potentially sending him back to a very real threat,” he said.

But no one appeared to know precisely what to make of Chen's change of heart. He had welcomed a deal that let him stay in China and work for change, telling his lawyer Li Jinsong on the way to the hospital, “I’m free, I’ve received clear assurances,” according to Li.

Toner said three U.S. officials heard Chen tell Clinton in broken English on the phone that he wanted to kiss her in gratitude. Chen told the AP that he actually told Clinton, “I want to see you now.”

Nor is it clear how the U.S. could be party to an agreement on Chen's safety inside China when it has no power to enforce the conditions of his life there.

Ai Xiaoming, a documentary filmmaker and activist, said the Chinese government fails to ensure people’s rights, so the best solution would be for Chen and his family to go to America.

“In the first place, Chen Guangcheng should not have to ask a foreign country to protect his rights,” Ai said. “His rights should be protected by his own country, through the constitution. But it is obvious that this cannot be done.”

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said no U.S. official said anything to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children. Nor did the Chinese relay any such threats to American diplomats, she said. She did confirm that if he did not leave the embassy the Chinese intended to return his family to their home province of Shandong, where they had been detained and beaten by local officials, and that they would lose any chance of being reunited.

“At every opportunity, he expressed his desire to stay in China, reunify with his family, continue his education and work for reform in his country,” Nuland said. “All our diplomacy was directed at putting him in the best possible position to achieve his objectives.”

Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor who is advising Chen at the State Department’s request, said there was never any explicit discussion of a threat against Chen’s wife.

“There was no indication in four or five hours of talks that he knew of any threat to her life,” cohen said.

Senior U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the intense negotiations that led to Chen leaving the embassy, said the U.S. helped Chen get into the embassy because he injured his leg escaping from his village. In the embassy, Chen did not request safe passage out of China or asylum in the U.S., the officials said.

U.S. officials said the deal called for Chen to settle outside his home province of Shandong and have several university options to choose from. They also said the Chinese government had promised to treat Chen “like any other student in China” and to investigate allegations of abuse against him and his family by local authorities.

Clinton said the U.S. would monitor China's assurances. “Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task,” she said.

Printed on Thursday, May 3, 2012 as: Chinese dissident afraid, now wants to leave country

Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng shown in a 2007 YouTube video.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIJING — The surprising escape of a blind legal activist from house arrest to the presumed custody of U.S. diplomats is buoying China’s embattled dissident community even as the government lashes out, detaining those who helped him and squelching mention of his name on the Internet.

The flight of Chen Guangcheng, a campaigner for disabled rights and against coercive family planning, is a challenge for China’s authoritarian government and, if it’s confirmed he is in U.S. custody, for Washington too. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell began a hurried mission to Beijing on Sunday to smooth the way for annual talks involving his boss, Hillary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and scores of officials.

Though Chen — a self-taught legal activist described by friends and supporters as calm and charismatic — hardly seems a threat, security forces and officials have reacted angrily, detaining several of his supporters and a nephew who fought with officials after the escape was discovered is on the run.

Police showed up at the home of veteran activists Zeng Jinyan and Hu Jia, who met with Chen last week while he was hiding in Beijing. Police took Hu away Saturday for 24 hours. They questioned Zeng for about a half-hour at home, sounding, she said, “very unhappy” about Chen’s flight.

“They were really irritated,” Zeng said. “It was a big shock for them.”

Ai Xiaoming, a documentary film maker based in southern Guangzhou city, said Chen’s escape has had the biggest emotional impact on Chinese rights advocates since jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago.

“There are many people now drinking toasts to him for the way he broke through his captivity, his difficulties, and pursued freedom,” said Ai. “It’s what we all want for ourselves in our hearts. Chen Guangcheng is an example to us. If a blind person can break out of the darkness to freedom, then everyone can.”

China’s state-controlled media have so far ignored the story despite its gripping narrative and the serious implications it could have on Sino-U.S. relations. Anything vaguely related to Chen has been blocked on Chinese social media sites.

The media blackout and online controls haven’t prevented China’s Internet savvy activist community from learning about or celebrating Chen’s escape. After state television aired a rerun Saturday of the American prison break film “Shawshank Redemption,” some gleefully tweeted that it was an indirect nod to Chen. “Shawshank Redemption” became a banned search term.

Chen’s whereabouts have yet to be confirmed. Activists in China and overseas have said Chen is either under U.S. protection or in the U.S. Embassy.

Chen’s escape comes as the Chinese leadership is already reeling, trying to heal divisions over the ousting of a powerful politician, Bo Xilai, and complete a once-a-decade transition to a new generation of leaders. As in Chen’s case, the U.S. is implicated: Bo’s ouster was precipitated by the sudden flight of an aide to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu.

While the aide, Wang Lijun, gave himself up to Chinese authorities — and though Republicans have criticized President Barack Obama for letting a valuable intelligence asset go — the incident and Chen’s escape reaffirm long-held suspicions by Beijing that the U.S. wants to undermine the communist government. Late last week, the White House, in a reversal, said it was considering selling new warplanes to Taiwan — the democratic island China claims as a breakaway territory.

It’s not known what Chen’s intentions are: some say he wants to stay in China. But negotiating any exit from U.S. custody is likely to be difficult for the Obama administration. Beijing is likely to be wary of any concessions, fearing they might embolden other activists.

Without confirming if Chen is in U.S. hands, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said the president would work to further human rights while preserving ties with Beijing.

“I think in all instances the president tries to balance our commitment to human rights, making sure that the people throughout the world have the ability to express themselves freely and openly, but also that we can continue to carry out our relationships with key countries overseas,” Brennan said on the U.S. television news show “Fox News Sunday”.

Complicating any negotiations over Chen is the treatment of his family. While Chen escaped a week ago from Dongshigu village and made it 600 kilometers (370 miles) northwest to Beijing, his wife and 6-year-old daughter were left behind. The whereabouts of several other relatives, including Chen’s mother and brother, are unknown.

Seven lawyers have volunteered to defend Chen’s nephew, Chen Kegui, who allegedly confronted and stabbed local officials who stormed his house in the middle of the night on Thursday in apparent retribution for the activist’s escape.

One volunteer lawyer, Liu Weiguo, said he spoke with Kegui briefly Sunday afternoon via mobile phone. Kegui told the lawyer he was by a highway about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from his home village, penniless and hoping to find a local police station where he could turn himself in.

“Since he escaped, they haven’t punished his persecutors in Shandong” province, said Zeng, the Beijing activist. “Instead it’s the activists and supporters who have been detained or disappeared. It’s very clear that Chen’s supporters and family members are very vulnerable right now.”

Among the activists still in custody are He Peirong, a Nanjing activist and Chen supporter who drove the blind lawyer’s getaway car out of his home province of Shandong, and Guo Yushan, a Beijing scholar and rights advocate who aided Chen in the capital.

For a rural activist, Chen had gathered a wide following, a testament to what supporters describe as his generous spirit and determination to fight injustice. His exposure of forced abortions and sterilizations in his community so angered officials, they persecuted him, sending him to jail for four years and then upon his release confining him to his home, where he was isolated and occasionally beaten.

Civil rights lawyers, journalists, diplomats and even British actor Christian Bale have tried to penetrate the heavy security that has surrounded Chen for the last 20 months. Each time, hired guards drove them back, sometimes pelting outsiders with rocks and chasing them with cars.

For China’s human rights defenders, Chen’s dash to freedom was a bright spot after nearly two years of mounting harassment. Ai, the documentary filmmaker, said Chen’s hardships have been unique but his aspirations for a more open society with greater legal protections are shared by many.

“We have jails inside ourselves that make us worry that we will be punished if we speak our minds because this society doesn’t respect the rule of law and doesn’t fully protect freedom of speech,” she said. “Chen Guangcheng is a model, and he has shown us that we can break away from those fears.”

Printed on Monday, April 30, 2012 as: Blind activist in China escaped into US custody