What had appeared to be a diplomatic success for the United States in negotiating for the safety of a blind dissident in China appears to have collapsed, aggravating tensions between the two countries once again.
Activist Chen Guangcheng put the agreement in question on Thursday by asking for asylum in the US, saying he feared for his and his family's safety should they remain in China as initially planned. Chen is currently in Chinese custody at a hospital after seeking refuge for six days at the US Embassy when he escaped from some 19 months of house arrest, imposed because of his crusade against forced abortions. Chen left the embassy on Wednesday when US officials convinced him that Beijing had agreed to relocate him to safety and allow him to pursue his studies at a university.
But in a telephone call from the Beijing hospital where he is being treated for a leg injury, the 40-year-old legal activist from the Shandong province said that he was no longer certain of the arrangement after learning of recent threats made to his family. "I feel very unsafe. My rights and safety cannot be assured here," he said, according to news agency Reuters.
Chen's doubts put US-China relations to the test at an already delicate time. With the US presidential election approaching in November, President Barack Obama needs to avoid any missteps in handling the situation. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dropped into the center of the diplomatic negotiations on Wednesday when she arrived in Beijing for annual talks between the two countries.
Chen's Future Uncertain
Clinton made a statement encouraging China to protect human rights, though she avoided bringing up Chen's case. "Of course, as part of our dialogue, the United States raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms," she said. "We believe all governments have to answer our citizens' aspirations for dignity and the rule of law and that no nation can or should deny those rights."
China is also trying to negotiate delicate domestic concerns, with a carefully directed change in leadership set to take place late this year. The transition has been overshadowed by a scandal surrounding high-level Communist Party official Bo Xilai, who has been linked to the alleged murder of a British businessman.
Though the Chinese Foreign Ministry refused to comment on Chen's asylum request, it said the US's handling of his case was "unacceptable," Reuters reported. US officials have said they are discussing options with Chen, though it remains unclear whether he would actually be allowed to leave the country, or if Chinese officials will negotiate further.
Chinese President Hu Jintao also skirted a direct mention of Chen at the bilateral talks but emphasized the need for mutual trust. "It is impossible for China and the United States to see eye-to-eye on every issue, but both sides must know how to respect each other," he said.
With Chen's situation still uncertain, German editorialists on Thursday comment on the initial deal made between US and Chinese officials and what both sides might be trying to achieve.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"So far the Chinese government has not contradicted (the deal they reached with US diplomats). This signals that it wants to solve a potentially explosive conflict with the US. A blind activist who puts himself under American protection -- that would have been a highly emotional and symbolic affair that could have easily resulted in deep discord."
"But Chen's case is not over. For the near future, the dissident effectively remains under American protection. It would be an affront to apprehend him again. But the question is how long this will be the case. Beijing brutally pursues its critics. He had hardly left the US Embassy when Chen told the press that he only did so because his wife had been threatened with death. One thing must be clear to Washington: In the long run, human rights abuses in China can't be glossed over with discrete deals."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"Activist Chen Guangcheng will remain in China for now after the Communist Party promised the US that it would treat him like a 'normal citizen.' This wording is a diplomatic compromise full of bitter irony, because 'normal' is apparently supposed to mean that Chen will now be treated justly according to the law. But his case is a perfect example of the fact that due process is anything but normal in China."
"That Beijing has missed the opportunity to set a precedent for the rule of law in Chen's case -- just as it did with artist Ai Weiwei and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo -- is a sad signal that the liberal and reform-oriented powers in the leadership currently have little to say. The power lies with the hardliners who insist that the party must always be right, both in relation to their own citizens and to foreign countries. Hence there will not be a resolution to this case. That is actually what counts as 'normal' in China."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Once again, (Hillary) Clinton deftly handled what would have normally damaged the already difficult relations between the two world powers. Even if Chen Guangcheng was reportedly threatened with the murder of his wife if he didn't leave the US Embassy, the US was still able to get the Chinese side to agree not to allow the blind activist or his family to come to harm. The central government in Beijing also promised that Chen would be allowed to study at a university. If they break this promise, they will lose credibility within their own ranks as well."
"Just months ahead of the change of leadership inside the Chinese central government, the current Premier Wen Jiabao still seems willing to talk, and he desperately needs to do so. When it comes to human rights in China, the situation has recently been aggravated by contradictory promises. But it's unlikely that the latest agreement with the US will lead to a change of course. China is too much of a dictatorship for that."
-- Kristen Allen
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