The Chen Guangcheng Affair: Potential Study Abroad Deal May End Diplomatic Impasse

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US Embassy Beijing Press Office / Reuters

A handout photo from the U.S. Embassy Beijing Press office shows U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke (L) talking to blind activist Chen Guangcheng (C) in Beijing, May 2, 2012. Picture taken May 2, 2012.

The blind legal activist who has been at the center of a diplomatic struggle between the U.S. and China has been offered a fellowship to study at an American university, and the Chinese government has indicated it will accept Chen Guangcheng‘s application for travel documents, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “The United States Government expects that the Chinese government will expeditiously process his applications for these documents,” Nuland said in a written statement. The U.S. would give “priority attention” to travel-visa requests for Chen and his family, she added. The diplomatic phrasing fell short of confirming that Chen and his family will soon leave China, but it offered a sign of possible resolution.

(MORE: How the Chen incident could affect U.S.-China relations.)

The announcement came at the end of two days of prearranged annual talks between U.S. and Chinese officials that were overwhelmed by the fate of Chen. A self-trained “barefoot lawyer,” Chen angered local authorities by opposing forced abortions carried out illegally in the name of China’s one-child policy. He has been in jail, prison or under house arrest for most of the past seven years. He escaped from extralegal house arrest in his village in Shandong province on April 22, stumbling through the countryside until he met supporters who drove him to Beijing, where he spent six days under U.S. protection. Chen left the U.S. embassy on Wednesday and went to a local hospital where he was reunited with his wife and two children. Chen, 40, had initially said he wanted to stay in China, but after talking with supporters who warned he and his family were at risk, Chen said he wanted to leave the country. That declaration, on the day that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Beijing for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue with Chinese officials, gave new urgency to discussions over Chen’s fate.

On Friday afternoon the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that Chen could apply to study abroad like other Chinese citizens. That statement, which was broadcast on state television, buoyed the hopes of his supporters. But it was also so carefully worded as to raise questions about whether he would be approved should he apply. At a press conference at the conclusion of the Sino-U.S. talks, Clinton said that U.S. officials had been allowed to meet with the activist and determined that he wanted to leave China. But she was guarded about any further developments, suggesting his fate will still be undecided after she leaves Beijing on Saturday. “He confirms that he and his family now want to go to the United States so he can pursue his studies,” Clinton said. “In that regard we are also encouraged by the official statement issued today by the Chinese government confirming that he can apply to travel abroad for this purpose. Over the course of the day progress has been made to help him have the future that he wants. We will be staying in touch with him as this process moves forward.”

(MORE: Team Chen Guangcheng: Meet the activists and friends supporting him.)

Chen’s case, and allegations that the U.S. pressured him to leave the embassy, created a huge diplomatic headache for the U.S. and opened the Obama Administration to criticism that it had abandoned the activist. U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke said that Chen had always said that he wished to stay in China and hadn’t sought asylum. From his hospital room, where he is receiving treatment on fractures in his right foot sustained during his escape, Chen was able to participate in a U.S. congressional hearing on his case Thursday and asked for further U.S. help. “I’m very worried about my mother and my brothers,” he said in brief comments that were relayed by speakerphone. “So I hope the Americans can contribute to secure my family’s security as well. That’s what I am worried about right now.” As Chen’s case appeared closer to resolution Friday there was still no news on the fate of family members who are believed to still be detained by local authorities in Shandong.

U.S. officials said Friday that Chinese authorities were looking into Chen’s complaints about the abuse he and his family received at the hands of local authorities in Shandong province. That was one of the key requests that Chen had addressed to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in a 15-minute video recorded after he fled house arrest. Also on Friday, He Peirong, an English teacher and activist who had driven Chen to Beijing after he fled house arrest, said she was able to return home after several days of detention. The possibility that Chen and his family could soon leave China would mark a significant success for the White House. But given the difficulties he has faced in and out of detention and the speed with which a previous arrangement collapsed on Wednesday, his supporters are likely to celebrate only once he and his family are on a plane on its way to the U.S.