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Diplomatic blunder by United States could spell disaster for human rights in China

The fate of the sight impaired and self-taught legal advocate, Chen Guangcheng, and his family was under the spotlight as secretary for state of the United States of America (US), Hillary Clinton, was in Beijing in early May for the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

As of May 8, Chen’s future remained uncertain. Despite reports that he would be allowed to study overseas at New York University, the only comment from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing was that like any other citizen, he could apply for permission to study abroad through normal channels.

Forty-year-old Chen shot into the headlines on April 22 when he escaped from house arrest in his own home in Dongshigu village with the help of some of the villagers and a group of people who are sympathetic to his situation.

He turned up at the US embassy in Beijing on April 26 and was given shelter, only to leave six days later escorted by US the ambassador to China, Gary Locke, for the hospital to get treatment for a leg injury.

The exact circumstances surrounding his departure from the embassy remain obscure, with speculation rife over whether the US had brokered a deal with Chinese authorities to return Chen.

Locke explained that Chen had made no request for political asylum and said that as far as he understood, he wanted to study in China.

But Chen’s description of events differed. He said he agreed to leave the embassy only after receiving threatening messages from Chinese officials saying his wife, Yuan Weijing, would be beaten to death and their two children would be sent back to Shandong if he refused to leave.

Chen added later that out of concern for his family’s safety, he wanted to go to the US to take a break.

Chen has consistently attracted media attention in past years, especially over a much publicised visit from actor, Christian Bale, the star of the movie series Batman, who was roughly turned away by security officers when he attempted to gain access to his home in December last year.

Chen raised the ire of the authorities by providing legal assistance to women villagers to expose the practice of forced abortions by local officials in their attempt to enforce the one-child policy.

In 2006, Chen was sentenced to more than four years in prison on charges of assembling a crowd to disrupt transport and intentional destruction of property.

His family endured round the clock surveillance and after his release in September last year, remained under strict scrutiny by security officials.

They were also cut off from the outside world for nearly two years, except for a video of the family that was released on the Internet in February last year.

Chen and his wife were reportedly beaten by security officers and their home was raided in the wake of the video leak.

Considering all these factors and in light of Chen’s reported request to leave China on board Clinton’s plane, his desire to leave the country is understandable.

He has been beaten and imprisoned for his human rights work, and has no reason to trust the promises made by Chinese authorities guaranteeing the safety of his family on the mainland.

The handling of the situation by the US government has also attracted wide criticism, with some saying the president, Barack Obama, has done nothing to resolve the situation and that Clinton merely spoke to Chen on the telephone to show her support.

But the US was also mute about the Nanjing blogger, He Peirong, nicknamed Pearl, who was detained for one week after the news of Chen’s escape spread online, and the interrogation of Beijing human rights lawyer, Jiang Tianyong, and the blocking of supporters from visiting Chen in hospital, all of which was reported by the international press.

In the days following Clinton’s May 5 departure from China, moves have been made by Chinese authorities to increase restrictions on Chen yet again.

US embassy officials were prevented from visiting Chen in hospital and were only allowed to meet his wife.

Questions linger at this critical moment over how the US will pressure China to ensure that Chen and his family get the opportunity to go to the US if that is what they want.

If efforts to secure Chen’s safe passage out of China fail, this would not only be a diplomatic disaster for the US, but have a chilling effect on the human rights movement in China. (UCAN)

Patrick Poon
Justice and Peace Commission