The Chinese government said Friday that blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng was free to apply for travel documents enabling him to study abroad, hinting at a possible solution to a crisis that has bedeviled US relations with China for a week.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was “encouraged” by the Chinese announcement, but cautioned that “there is more work to do” before Mr. Chen’s fate is settled.
“Progress has been made to help him have the future he wants. We will stay in touch with him as this process moves forward,” Ms. Clinton told reporters.
Earlier in the day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said that if Chen wanted to study abroad “he can go through normal procedures at related departments according to the law, like any other Chinese citizen.”
Chen told reporters during the past two days that he would like to study in the United States. He had been expected to study in China under a deal negotiated between US and Chinese diplomats while Chen was sheltering in the US embassy here.
Allowing Chen to study abroad would be “a very appropriate way to resolve what was becoming a much too overheated dilemma,” says Jerry Cohen, a veteran Chinese law expert and friend of Chen’s, who advised the activist by phone during the negotiations.
It was unclear how long it might take for Chen and his family to secure the necessary travel documents; Chen himself does not have a passport, and under normal circumstances he would have to return to his hometown to apply for one.
He is unlikely to be willing to do that, since officials from his hometown had kept him and his family under illegal house arrest for 19 months, repeatedly beating him and his wife. Chen took refuge in the US Embassy in Beijing last week after a daring night time escape from his guards.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Friday that the US government “expects that the Chinese government will expeditiously process his applications” for travel documents, and that Washington would then “give visa requests for him and his immediate family priority attention.”
Chen has been offered a fellowship by an American university, Ms. Nuland said. It was not immediately clear whether she was referring to the standing invitation Professor Cohen said he had made some time ago to the civil rights activist to take up a place as a visiting scholar at New York University’s US-Asia Law Institute.
Chen, a self-taught lawyer who served a four year prison term on what activists said were trumped up charges after he angered local officials by campaigning on behalf of women subjected to forced abortions and sterilizations, and was then held against his will at his home for a year and a half, would bring valuable experience to the institute, Cohen said.
“This man is one of the world’s leading experts on certain aspects of the Chinese legal system,” he says. “We could learn a lot from him.”
Under the original deal that convinced him to leave the US embassy on Wednesday, Chen had been due to move to the eastern port city of Tianjin to study law. He had repeatedly insisted that he wanted to stay in China and did not want to seek asylum in the United States, US diplomats and supporters said.
Hours after leaving the embassy, however, he talked to his wife and to fellow human rights activists, from the hospital as Chinese plainclothes policemen patrolled the hallways. Disturbed by the absence of US embassy officials to protect him, Chen told reporters in phone interviews that he feared for his safety and actually wanted to go to the United States.
The adjustment to the initial plan, moving him and his family to the United States in the near future, would not involve his applying for asylum. He would be free to return to China at a later date, though it remains unclear how practicable that would be.