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China says Dissident Can Apply to Go Abroad

  • Stephanie Ho

Chinese security guards block journalists at the entrance of a hospital where blind activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng is recuperating in Beijing, May 4, 2012.

Chinese security guards block journalists at the entrance of a hospital where blind activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng is recuperating in Beijing, May 4, 2012.

Chinese officials say legal activist Chen Guangcheng is free to apply to go overseas if he wants to, and U.S. officials say they expect China to process his travel paperwork quickly. The still developing case of the lawyer, who left the U.S. embassy earlier this week, has overshadowed high-level annual talks between American and Chinese officials. U.S. officials say Chen has been offered a fellowship at an American university.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin's comments Friday seemed to indicate some softening of the Chinese government's position on Chen Guangcheng.

Liu says if Chen wants to study abroad, he may apply according to relevant procedures and through the same channels as any other Chinese citizen.

In answer to a question about whether China has received the apology it had demanded from the United States, Liu said Beijing notes that Washington takes its concerns and demands seriously.

A State Department official says a U.S. university has offered Chen a fellowship that would allow him to bring his wife and children to the country while he studies. The official says the U.S. expects Chinese officials to expeditiously process Chen's travel paperwork.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who just finished two days of annual talks with Chinese officials, called Beijing's statement on Chen encouraging.

"I am pleased that today our ambassador has spoken with him again, our embassy staff and our doctor had a chance to meet with him, and he confirms that he and his family now want to go to the United States so he can pursue his studies," said Clinton.

She said progress has been made to help him, in her words, "get the future that he wants." She added that American officials will stay in touch with him as the process moves forward.

She described the just-concluded Strategic and Economic Dialogue as a regular venue where the two sides can emphasize cooperation but also frankly discuss areas of disagreement.

Chen is currently being treated at a Beijing hospital for a foot injury. Last month, he made a daring escape from heavily guarded house arrest in Shandong province and then last week, he turned up at the U.S. Embassy.

He left the American mission on Wednesday, one day before high-level U.S.-China talks, and was escorted to a local hospital. He initially wanted to remain in China, but he later told supporters and foreign reporters that he has changed his mind, and now wants to go overseas.

Chen underscored his intention to go abroad "to rest," in telephone testimony to a U.S. Congressional hearing in Washington Thursday.

Chinese artist activist Ai Weiwei, who was held in detention several months last year, says he believes the situation for Chen is precarious if he stays in the country.

Ai says all parties involved, both the U.S. and Chinese governments, are in an awkward situation, which he says causes a severely unsafe and unstable situation for Chen and his family.

Ai adds that he believes Chen may have wanted to stay in China, but has become frightened after talking to friends and family. He points to Chen's desire to go abroad as something that should be rational and legal for any Chinese citizen.

Ai admiringly calls Chen "a mouse," and says he is an ordinary person who has suffered so much and carried what he describes as a big burden for the cause of human rights in China.

Chen, who is blind, is a 40-year-old self-taught legal activist. He helped expose forced abortions and sterilizations by Chinese family planning authorities and served four years in jail.

Since he was freed in September 2010, plainclothes security personnel have confined him and his family to his home in rural Shandong, and reportedly have beaten him and his family members.

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