BEIJING – U.S. and Chinese officials are ironing out a deal to secure American asylum for a blind Chinese legal activist who fled house arrest, with an agreement likely before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives this week, a U.S. rights campaigner said Monday.
Bob Fu of the Texas-based rights group ChinaAid said that China and the U.S. want to reach agreement on the fate of Chen Guangcheng before the annual high-level talks with Clinton and other U.S. officials begin in Beijing on Thursday.
"The Chinese top leaders are deliberating a decision to be made very soon, maybe in the next 24 to 48 hours," Fu said, citing a source close to the U.S. and Chinese governments. Both sides are "eager to solve this issue," said Fu, a former teacher at a Communist Party academy in Beijing whose advocacy group focuses on the rights of Christians in China and who maintains a network of contacts in the country.
"It really depends on China's willingness to facilitate Chen's exit," Fu said.
Chen, a well-known dissident who angered authorities in rural China by exposing forced abortions, made a surprise escape from house arrest a week ago into what activists say is the protection of U.S. diplomats in Beijing, posing a delicate diplomatic crisis for both governments.
At a briefing in Washington on Monday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to comment on Chen's case.
She gave the first U.S. government confirmation that Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell is currently in Beijing, but described his visit as preparation for Clinton's trip.
She said the U.S.-China Strategic Dialogue is planned to go ahead.
Both sides want the annual talks to provide ballast to a relationship that is often rocky and to provide ways of working out disputes on trade, Taiwan, Syria, Iran and North Korea.
In a video made after Chen escaped from his village and released last Friday, the activist made no mention of wanting to go abroad. Instead he beseeched Premier Wen Jiabao to investigate the beatings, harassment and other mistreatment he, his wife and daughter suffered at the hands of local officials during 20 months of house arrest.
If Chen were willing to leave China, Washington could ill afford to turn him away. Clinton and other senior officials have repeatedly raised his case in meetings with Chinese officials. President Barack Obama is already under fire from Republicans over a case in which an aide to a senior Chinese leader entered the U.S. Consulate in Chendgu but then left, turning himself over to Chinese investigators.
The European Union has also repeatedly raised Chen's case and its office in Beijing issued a statement Monday calling for China to extend legal protections to him, his family and supporters.
"We call on the Chinese authorities to exercise utmost restraint in dealing with the matter, including avoiding harassment of his family members or any person associated with him," the statement said.
For Beijing, the issue is sensitive because Chen enjoys broad sympathy among the Chinese public for persevering in his activism despite being blind and despite repeated reprisals from local officials. And though Beijing dislikes bargaining with Washington over human rights, allowing Chen to go abroad would remove an irritant in relations with Washington. It would also prevent him from becoming a bargaining chip in an already bumpy transition of power under way from President Hu Jintao's administration to a younger group of leaders.
Fu, who has been a point of contact for people helping Chen, said he offered to help the dissident leave China through "a sort of underground railroad" shortly after he made a daring nighttime escape from his heavily guarded farmhouse on April 22. Fu had made such arrangements previously, helping the wife and two young children of another dissident lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, flee to the U.S. after they'd exited China overland from Beijing to Thailand.
But Fu said that Chen refused the offer and chose instead to go to Beijing. Despite Chen's initial resistance to exile, Fu said that might now be the only option.
"My sense is that at the end of the day, after China is willing to facilitate it in a face-saving way with the U.S., he and his family may have to choose to travel to the U.S. in whatever way that China agrees," he said.
Chen is widely admired by rights activists in China who last year publicized his case among ordinary Chinese and encouraged them to go to Dongshigu village and break the security cordon. Even Hollywood actor Christian Bale tried to visit, but was roughed up by locals paid to keep outsiders away.
A self-taught lawyer blinded by fever in infancy, Chen served four years in prison on what activists say were trumped-up charges after exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in his and surrounding villages. Since his release in September 2010, local officials confined him to his home. Amnesty International and other human rights groups say he was abused over the last 18 months.