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Can China, US strike a new deal on blind dissident? (+video)

Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese activist, has upended an earlier agreement between China and the US, disrupting a visit to Beijing by Hillary Clinton.

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Chen, who has sounded upset and confused in his conversations with journalists and supporters, appears to have decided on Wednesday evening that he would rather flee China than remain here, after speaking to his wife, friends, and fellow activists about his future.

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Change of plan?

He told reporters he had left the US embassy, where he had sought refuge last week, only because Chinese officials had threatened that unless he did so, they would send his wife back to their hometown, where he and she had been repeatedly beaten during 19 months of illegal house arrest by the men assigned to guard them.

Salvaging the original plan, with which Chen had appeared happy as he left the embassy according to US diplomats pointing to photos of the activist smiling and hugging his American hosts, would be difficult, says Phelim Kine, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.

“It is doable, but the clock is ticking,” he argues. “The Americans need to roll out comprehensible and comprehensive measures to assure Chen that he will be OK.”

US officials had said that as part of the deal they would carefully monitor Chen and his family to ensure their safety. But within hours of leaving the US embassy Chen was telling reporters and friends that there were no US officials in the hospital where he was confined and that he had been unable to get through to the embassy by phone.

“The Americans need to make up for lost time very quickly with confidence building measures so that Chen knows that what happened in the last 24 hours won’t happen again,” says Mr. Kine.

“I would be profoundly disappointed if this craters,” said Jerry Cohen, a veteran Chinese law specialist and friend of Chen’s who advised him during his stay in the US embassy.

The plan for him to stay was “innovative and creative” said Professor Cohen, speaking on a conference call organized by the National Committee on US-Chinese Relations. Were Chen to go into exile in America “the danger would be very high that he would be neutered, be just a voice in the wilderness with no influence in his own country,” he added.

The problem, he said, was that “no details had been worked out; the challenge is how to put flesh on the bones. If it doesn’t work, he will have to leave China.”

That outcome might be in China’s interests on a number of counts, not least, suggests Professor Shi, because Chen’s presence here and US efforts to ensure he is not harassed would mean “potential long term trouble and an almost unending affair.”

Should Chen formally ask to leave his homeland with his family, “if China really wants soft power they should let him go and we should welcome him,” said Cohen.

A test-case

A decision on Chen’s future undoubtedly lies with the nine most senior leaders of the ruling Communist Party on its Standing Committee, where hardliners such as Zhou Yongkang, head of the security apparatus, are believed to have a personal animus against Chen.

The activist’s legal efforts on behalf of women subjected to forced abortions, and his subsequent persecution for seven years by local officials in his hometown, have drawn international attention and made him a figurehead of the Chinese human rights movement.

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