2 May 2012

Questions remain over Chen Guangcheng's safety

International Editor Lindsey Hilsum blogs on the diplomatic implications of the United States’s decision to protect the blind dissident lawyer, Chen Guangcheng.

Hillary Clinton said today that the deal the US did with China over the blind dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng reflected “his choices and our values”.

Chen, who escaped from house arrest and fled to the US Embassy last week, did not seek asylum in the US, even though that might have been the easiest option for both the Americans and the Chinese. Instead, he will stay in China with guarantees that US diplomats will monitor what happens – in other words, will try to prevent the local authorities in Shandong, his home province, from seizing him again.

The bizarre thing about this story is that Chen is not charged with any crime. He has already spent four years in prison, but on his release officials in his village of Dongshigu decided to keep him under house arrest, with up to a hundred guards around to prevent him from escaping. It seems they are still angry that he exposed their practice of forcing abortions on women who got pregnant and transgressed the one child policy.

The State Department says they helped him on humanitarian grounds. The Chinese have protested that allowing him to spend six days in the US Embassy was “interference in Chinese domestic affairs” and demanded an apology.

According to the Washington Post, the Chinese government agreed that Chen would be treated humanely, relocated from his village to a safe place, reunited with his family and allowed to enrol in a university. It also said Chinese authorities agreed to investigate the “extralegal” activities of the local authorities in Chen’s hometown.

The dissident Zeng Jinyan, who saw Chen after his escape, told Channel 4 News that he was visibly thinner and his hands were shaking. He’s now in hospital, with his wife and family.

The question now is, will he be able to continue to practice as a human rights lawyer? And in a few months time, when the fuss has died down, will the US be able to guarantee his safety? As China gains diplomatic power, senior party officials are less prone to accommodating the Americans on human rights issues.

While the US Secretary of State is in Beijing, and the eyes of the world are on them, they’ll do what they can to make the problem go away. But in a few months time, the view from Beijing may look very different.

Follow Lindsey on Twitter: @lindseyhilsum