Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng has been offered a fellowship at a university in the U.S. and can be accompanied by his wife and two children, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement today.
“The Chinese Government has indicated that it will accept Mr. Chen’s applications for appropriate travel documents,” Nuland said in the statement.
“The United States government expects that the chinese government will expeditiously process his applications for these documents, and make accommodations for his current medical condition. The United States government would then give visa requests for him and his immediate family priority attention.”
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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pressed China on human rights issues early Friday, but didn’t mention activist Chen by name.
“Of course, the United States continues to raise human rights because we believe that they are essential for every country to uphold,” she said in a speech Friday at the end of a two-day annual strategic meeting with China. “We raise specific matters of individuals and situations whenever necessary because we cannot ignore our areas of difference in the comprehensive relationship that we are building.”
Clinton implored China to be a role for good in the world by respecting human rights and assisting in the challenges posed by Iran, North Korea, Syria, and the Sudan.
China’s top diplomat, Dai Bingguo, conceded that no country, including China, can claim to be perfect when it comes to human rights, but that the nation will “continue to stay on the right course it has chosen.”
Bingguo called the talks a “tremendous” success.
U.S. diplomats defended their handling of a deal that led legal activist Chen Guangcheng to give up the safety of the American embassy, saying he later had a “change of heart” about his decision to stay in China.
Chen, a legal activist who is blind, was imprisoned for more than four years after representing villagers who opposed forced sterilizations. He consistently told U.S. diplomats during a week-long stay in the embassy in Beijing that he wanted to remain in China with his family, U.S. officials said.
Meanwhile, China said Friday Chen could apply to study abroad, suggesting an end may be near to a diplomatic crisis that has soured relations between Beijing and Washington.
After being reunited with his family at Beijing hospital, Chen told friends and journalists by telephone that he is fearful for his wife and children and the family now wants to go to the United States. Chen said he wants to leave as soon as possible, journalist Melinda Liu wrote on the Daily Beast website, citing a phone call with him.
“My fervent hope is that it would be possible for me and my family to leave for the U.S. on Hillary Clinton’s plane,” he said. Secretary of State Clinton is in Beijing for cabinet-level talks that began today.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters today that “it is clear now” that now they as a family “have had a change of heart about whether they want to stay in China.”
Republican members of Congress criticized the administration’s handling of the case Thursday at a hearing in Washington. A phone call from Chen asking to come to the United States was translated for the lawmakers by Bob Fu, a human-right advocate who has championed his cause.
No U.S. officials would comment today about granting asylum to Chen and his family. To leave China, they would need to get exit permission and passports from Chinese authorities, as well as a visa from the U.S., where he could apply for asylum after arrival.
Under normal passport-application rules, they would have to return to their home in Shandong province, which he fled after house arrest and alleged beatings by local authorities.
Chen had agreed to a deal the U.S. brokered with Chinese authorities that would have let him relocate within China and study law on a scholarship, U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Gary Locke told reporters traveling with Clinton.
“I can tell you unequivocally that he was never pressured to leave” the U.S. embassy in Beijing, Locke said. “We waited for him to make his decision.”
U.S. officials had two telephone conversations with Chen today and also met with his wife outside the hospital, Locke said in an interview with ABC News. There will be further discussions with them to “explore the options,” including whether they now desire asylum in the U.S., Locke said.
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Chen’s change of heart is overshadowing annual U.S.-China talks that are being attended by Clinton and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
In remarks at the opening of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks today, Clinton shortened a section of her prepared text that touched on human rights, saying the U.S. “raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” because it believes all governments must heed their citizens’ “aspirations for dignity and the rule of law.”
Chinese President Hu Jintao said his country and the U.S. should “prove that the traditional belief that big powers are bound to enter into confrontation and conflicts is wrong” and that they should be committed to a “cooperative partnership.”
Chen’s statements that he felt pressured to leave the U.S. embassy opened President Barack Obama to Republican attacks. Failure to protect Chen is a “dark day for freedom,” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said today at a campaign rally in Portsmouth, Virginia.
“This is a big win for the Chinese authorities because the attention ought to be focused on the wrongdoing which was apparently done by either national or local officials to Chen,” said Bates Gill, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “These developments will become a U.S. domestic political distraction to criticize Obama and his approach to China.”
Republican U.S. lawmakers criticized both Chinese authorities and the Obama administration.
“It should have been obvious to U.S. officials all along that there is no way to guarantee Mr. Chen’s safety so long as he is within reach of the Chinese police state,” Florida Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement today.
Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who is chairman of the Congressional-Executive Committee on China, called the hearing today on Chen’s situation. The Obama administration “must do everything it can” to ensure that Chen, his family members and those who have helped him “are removed from harm’s way and do not suffer any further abuse or retaliation,” Smith said in a statement.
Virginia Republican Frank Wolf said he would seek diplomatic cables and other documents on the U.S.-Chinese discussions over Chen when he was in the U.S. embassy.“The most generous reading of the administration’s handling of this case is that it was naive in that it accepted assurances from a government that has a well-known documented history of brutally repressing its people,” Wolf said at the hearing.
“The Obama administration has a high moral obligation to protect Chen and his family,” Wolf said. “To do anything less would be scandalous.”
Chen told CNN that after his escape from house arrest his wife had been tied to a chair in the family home for two days by police who threatened to beat her to death. In an interview with the Associated Press, he said that, while he’d been told he would be safe in China, he began to fear for his family and felt the U.S. had pressured him to leave the embassy.
In a phone call from the hospital, Chen was crying as he appealed for help, Fu, president of the Texas-based ChinaAid rights group, said today in Washington. Fu cited Chen as saying “please help and bring my family to the U.S.”
Locke said Chen’s wife had urged him to leave the embassy and come to the hospital to be reunited with his family as part of the deal worked out by the U.S.
“We asked him what did he want to do, did he want to leave, was he ready to leave,” Locke said. “We waited several minutes and suddenly he jumped up very eager, very ready and said, ‘Let’s go,’ in front of many, many witnesses.”
Subsequently, U.S. officials described a deal with Chinese authorities permitting him and his family to relocate in China so he could study law in safety at one of seven universities, with his family’s living expenses paid for, and said the U.S. would monitor China’s compliance.
“The embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised to be with me at the hospital,” Chen told CNN, according to a transcript, adding that U.S. officials left after he was admitted. “I’m very disappointed at the U.S. government.”
Chen, who was blinded by a fever in infancy and was illiterate until his 20s, was jailed for more than four years after filing a lawsuit protesting the forced sterilizations. After his release in September 2010, he and his wife were confined to their home. In a video recorded after his escape, Chen said reports that he and his family were beaten during his house arrest were true.
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