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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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Some observers had seen the initial deal, offering Chen the chance to study in China, as a chance for reformers in the Communist Party to put their rhetoric about the importance of the rule of law into practice. “They could use this case as an opportunity,” suggests Lu Yiyi, a political researcher who works in Beijing on a project promoting open government.

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Chen’s case offers a promising test-case, some analysts believe, because he has defended ordinary peoples’ rights within the system rather than challenging one party rule, as more overtly political dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo, currently serving an 11 year jail sentence, have done.

“Chen Guangcheng does not threaten the government itself, or the system,” says Li Fangping, a human rights lawyer who has represented Chen.

No change here for human rights

But the Chinese government’s readiness to allow Chen to stay “is not announcing a change in the government’s attitude to human rights activists in general,” warns Nicolas Bequelin, another Human Rights Watch analyst.

A number of Chen’s associates and supporters have been detained or put under house arrest in recent days, according to activists, and the government has shown no signs of acknowledging that local officials in Chen’s hometown might have acted illegally by holding him and his family in their house against their will for the last year and a half.

“As far as I know, after Chen Guangcheng was released from prison [in 2010] he was a free person,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin on Thursday.

“The idea that the central government did not know what was going on is preposterous,” says Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights expert in Hong Kong. “They are only dealing with it now because they have been forced to.”

World against China?

The confusion of the past 24 hours, the international media frenzy surrounding Chen’s fate, and the way in which the United States pledged to protect Chen in his own country from his own government, may have strengthened the hand of those Chinese leaders disposed to treat the activist harshly, say some analysts.

“It may reinforce the idea of a hostile world against which China has to circle the wagons,” said David Lampton, director of the China Studies Program at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, talking with Cohen on the conference call.

That would likely make it very hard for Chen to be granted the wish he expressed Thursday in an interview with Newsweek, that he and his family be allowed to fly to the US with Hillary Clinton when the Secretary of State leaves China at the end of this week after the current round of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

“If the Americans formally raise a demand to remake the agreement, the Chinese side will wait,” predicts Shi. “The initiative is in China’s hands and I don’t think the Chinese government will be as cooperative as it was two days ago. The process could be a long one.”

“Chen Guangcheng is America’s hot potato now,” adds Yan Xuetong, a noted international affairs specialist at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “He is not China’s problem.”


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