Published on 6 May 2012 Sections ,

Why Chen's US exile is not yet a done deal

China and the US have been negotiating over Chen Guangcheng’s future after the self-educated lawyer sought the protection of the Americans in their embassy last week. As part of a still-evolving deal, the dissident may go the US to study – if the Chinese agree to let him go.

After weeks of diplo-drama in Beijing, the blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng has asked Chinese officials to help him negotiate the application procedure so he can leave the country as quickly as possible.

China and the US have been negotiating for weeks over the future of the self-educated lawyer after he sought the protection of the Americans in their embassy last week. As part of a still-evolving deal, the dissident may go the US to study – if the Chinese agree to let him go.

For the time being Mr Chen remains in Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital – where he’s been since Wednesday, receiving treatment for injuries sustained during his escape from house arrest. The facility serves another purpose however – as a holding centre, keeping him in – and it will probably remain that way until the Chinese and Americans come to an agreement on what to do with him. He’s been offered a fellowship a New York University – something Mr Chen is keen to take up – so all he needs is that passport that will get him through immigration control.

On Friday, a government spokesman from China’s foreign ministry said he could use the normal channels – like any other Chinese citizen – to get himself one. That sounded like a positive move but the reality is more complicated. Mr Chen is not like other citizens. A small number of faceless officials lurking in the bureaucratic background will make the decision on whether the ‘normal’ procedure applies in this case – that’s how it works here.

Even starting the process of applying for a passport is problematic. Mr Chen would have to return to his village in Shandong Province – a place where he was locked up and beaten – so he’s unlikely to agree to that.

And bear in mind that Chinese dissidents are routinely refused the right to travel abroad – something Mr Chen knows only too well – his wife Yuan Weijing had her passport ‘declared invalid by the relevant authorities’ at Beijing’s international airport when she tried to travel abroad in 2007.

Still, an exception may well be made this time for Mr Chen and his family – the Chinese government is under considerable international pressure to do so – but other dissident figures may pay the price for this act of leniency. Many people here in China think the government’s security services will turn the screw on other domestic critics, lest they think the Chen affair gives them move room to maneuver.

We have certainly got that impression from activists and friends of Mr Chen, who made the trip to visit him in hospital last week. Some – like lawyer Jiang Tianyong – were beaten up by the secret police last week.

Mr Jiang told us he was taken to a hotel room and knocked about on Thursday night. He says he needs to go to hospital because his hearing has been ‘severely damaged’ but when we called him last night, he said there were 20 ‘guards’ outside his front door and they won’t let him go anywhere.

On Friday

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