Eyes on China after deal on dissident

2012-05-05 10:37

Beijing - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ended a tense visit to China on Saturday with a fragile deal in hand over a top dissident, as anxious activists waited to see if Beijing would let him leave the country.

After a turbulent week in ties between the Pacific powers, the United States said on Friday that China would move soon to allow blind rights campaigner Chen Guangcheng to go to the United States with his family to study.

New York University said it had invited him to attend the institution.

Chen, who has alleged beatings under house arrest in conditions that are unusually harsh even by Chinese standards, dramatically escaped and took refuge in the US embassy on April 26, days before Clinton was due on a visit.

US officials, saying that Chen never requested asylum, escorted him to a Beijing hospital on Wednesday and said China had assured his safety. But Chen later said he felt unsafe and wanted to leave China, at least temporarily.

He was still believed to be in the hospital where a heavy security detail has kept journalists and supporters from entering.

Good faith

T Kumar, the Washington-based advocacy director for Amnesty International, welcomed the agreement but said it was critical to watch if China follows through and ends harassment of Chen's family and those who assisted him.

"While Amnesty International welcomes this initiative, we are very concerned on whether the Chinese government is doing this in good faith," he said.

Bob Fu, an exiled Chinese Christian activist who was instrumental in putting the case on the global radar, had criticised the initial deal but commended Clinton and Gary Locke, the US ambassador to China, for the latest agreement.

"This announcement is important and reflects Chen's wishes," said Fu, the head of the Texas-based group ChinaAid.

But he voiced concern for fellow activists and Chen's family members, saying: "Beijing gives Chen freedom with one hand and beats rights defenders with the other."

Chen exposed forced abortions, some late in women's pregnancies, and sterilisations under China's "one-child" population control policy. He defied pressure to stay silent after a four-year jail term that ended in 2010.

The initial deal quickly escalated into a tussle in Washington. Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney called it a "day of shame" for President Barack Obama's administration if reports - strongly denied by US officials - were true that it relayed Chinese threats against Chen's family to him.

Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and staunch critic of China, said the Obama administration made a mistake to escort Chen out of US protection and should now keep pressure on Beijing.

"Only when Chen arrives on American soil and is granted political asylum will we know that this issue is resolved and his freedom and safety are assured," she said.

US officials appeared to be keeping the details of Friday's agreement deliberately vague, fearing that it would fall through if China felt embarrassed on its home soil.

The State Department said it expected China to move "expeditiously" to grant Chen a passport to leave. China said publicly only that Chen had a right to go abroad to study.

US officials refused to put a timeframe on Chen's departure or say whether senior Chinese officials gave assurances on the agreement, although Clinton met on Friday with both Premier Wen Jiabao - a self-styled reformist to whom Chen addressed his demands - and President Hu Jintao.

While Chen marked the biggest human rights crisis between the countries in years, US officials were relieved - and perhaps even surprised - that it did not derail the entire relationship.

Talks went ahead

The two-day talks, which also included Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve chairperson Ben Bernanke, went ahead as planned, while China's Defence Minister Liang Guanglie arrived for a rare visit to the United States late on Friday.

Geithner praised efforts by China on its exchange rate - a frequent point of concern - and Clinton appeared upbeat that Beijing was working more closely with the United States on global hotspots such as North Korea, Sudan and Iran.

"It is a testament to how far we've come in building a strong and resilient relationship and being able to have very candid, open discussions about issues where there is disagreement without it endangering the entire range of significant matters that we are working on together," Clinton said on Friday.

But Clinton, who faced criticism at the start of her term over comments on cooperation with China, vowed that human rights would be "at the heart of our diplomacy."

Clinton departed Beijing midday on Saturday for a visit to Bangladesh.