Standoff over Chinese dissident threatens to derail US summit

 

Beijing

US and Chinese officials were yesterday said to be eager to come to an agreement over the fate of Chen Guangcheng, the blind, barefoot lawyer who is thought to have found sanctuary with American diplomats after his daring flight from house arrest last week.

Mr Chen, a well-known dissident who angered authorities in rural China by exposing forced abortions and sterilisations, slipped away despite heavy surveillance around his village home in eastern Shandong province. Although there has been no official confirmation of his whereabouts, activists say he fled to the US embassy in Beijing, presenting a delicate diplomatic challenge for the two countries.

Yesterday, officials from both sides were reported to be working on a deal that could see Mr Chen leave for the US, possibly with his family. Activists said an agreement could be reached within days, as the two countries hurry to resolve the issue ahead of a visit next week for strategic talks by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Mr Chen is popular among many Chinese for his courageous activism, and is the focus for many international complaints about China's human rights record. A self-taught lawyer, he was charged with what supporters claim were trumped up traffic and public order offenses in 2006, and jailed for four years. Since his release in September 2010, he had been under house arrest, and has claimed his guards attacked and beat his wife, and even attacked his mother.

Bob Fu, the head of the Texas-based human rights group ChinaAid, which reportedly played a key role in organising Mr Chen's release, said he believed a resolution of the escaped dissident's case would come up within one or two days. "I was told the Chinese top leaders have been deliberating a decision to be made very soon. A Chinese official response [is] expected in the next day or so," he told the Reuters news agency yesterday. Mr Fu said he got his information from "both sides" in the talks over Mr Chen's fate. The US State Department did not comment.

This week's annual strategic talks will be closely watched, give the global clout commanded by the two countries. Kurt Campbell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, was photographed arriving in Beijing yesterday for talks about Mr Chen, although there has been no information from the US embassy.

The sensitivity of the matter was highlighted by Phelim Kine, a senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, who said it "has all the makings of the diplomatic equivalent of a slow-motion car crash". "Still-unconfirmed reports of intense discussions between US and Chinese officials on Chen Guangcheng's status, whereabouts, safety and wellbeing gives rise to hope of a resolution that both protects Chen, his family and his supporters without impacting the wider US-China relationship," he added.

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