BEIJING — Capping a week of dramatic diplomacy, U.S. officials embraced on Friday a statement from China that blind activist Chen Guangcheng could seek permission to study abroad, saying Chinese officials have promised to quickly process his paperwork so he can leave for the United States.
But the deal — struck less than 24 hours before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was set to depart Beijing — left Chen and U.S. officials in the same position they have been stuck in for days: relying on the word of the Chinese government.
A previous deal reached with Chinese officials Wednesday fell apart within hours, after U.S. diplomats were barred from visiting Chen in Beijing’s Chaoyang hospital. He was taken there after leaving the protection of the U.S. Embassy compound. U.S. diplomats, as well as Chen, thought they had been promised regular and easy access to him.
As with that deal, the new agreement leaves significant obstacles and numerous questions unanswered. In the balance hangs the Obama administration’s record on human rights, which is under heavy criticism, as well as the health of relations between the world’s two leading powers. Most pressingly at stake is the safety of the 40-year-old Chen and his family.
There was evidence Friday to suggest that China may not uphold its end of the bargain, even though allowing Chen to study in the United States could permit Beijing a face-saving way out of the standoff.
Supporters trying to visit Chen at the hospital were roughly turned away, with some saying they were severely beaten by plainclothes police. China’s state-controlled newspapers also launched scathing attacks on Chen and U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke, who helped Chen enter the embassy April 26 after his dramatic escape from de facto house arrest in his village in Shandong province. In addition, some of Chen’s allies remain under house arrest.
The public backlash against the anti-Chen, anti-Locke editorials was so fierce that, in a bizarre and unusual move, one newspaper, The Beijing News, seemed to apologize later on its Sina Weibo microblogging account. The Beijing News, sister paper of the Beijing Daily, posted a black-and-white photograph of a sad-looking clown, and the words; “In the still of the deep night, removing that mask of insincerity, we say to our true selves, ‘I am sorry.’ Goodnight.”
Media analysts said the words, and the photo of someone in clown makeup, indicated the paper’s editors were telling readers they were forced to write the offending editorial.
In a news conference Friday, the top Foreign Ministry official in charge of U.S. affairs, Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, twice refused to discuss Chen’s case or even acknowledge a deal on the dissident’s future, even though Cui is thought to have been China’s lead negotiator. China gave no assurances about when Chen might be able to leave, or whether he could return.
“The disparity between high-level assurances and the reality on the ground is stark,” said Catherine Baber, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific deputy director. “While the Chinese and the U.S. negotiated on Chen and his family, Chinese authorities were targeting his friends and supporters — including beating Jiang Tianyong,” who tried to visit Chen in the hospital.
Jiang, a human rights lawyer, described in an interview how he visited Chaoyang hospital to try to see Chen on Thursday night but was immediately hustled into an unmarked car by plainclothes officers from Beijing’s Haidan district public security branch.
Jiang said the agents took him to a hotel room where they repeatedly berated him. Then one of the agents “suddenly jumped on me and punched me heavily three times, on my left ear, my right ear and my chest,” Jiang said, adding that he “instantly felt a severe hearing loss.” He said he was detained until 3 a.m. Friday and has since been placed under house arrest.
With Clinton set to depart Saturday, there were no indications that Chen would be leaving with her, as he at one point had said he would like to do. Chen’s own changing wishes and ability to broadcast them through the media have repeatedly flipped carefully scripted plans and scrambled the negotiations.
For Chen and his relatives, the stakes of his decisions could not be higher, given the threat they face. While Chen’s immediate family — his wife and two children — may be allowed to leave under the new deal, Chen has repeatedly expressed worries for the safety of his mother and brother.
“It would be pretty hard to have all these other people” leave with him, said New York University law professor Jerome A. Cohen, a friend of Chen’s who helped arrange a fellowship for him at NYU that became a crucial component of the deal. As someone traveling to the United States to study, Chen would be leaving ostensibly “for a few months of rest and study” and not to emigrate, he noted.
Chen’s lack of a passport may also prove to be an obstacle. The Foreign Ministry, in its Friday statement, said that if Chen “wants to study abroad, he can apply through normal channels to the relevant departments, according to the law, just like any other Chinese citizen.” But in Chen’s case, that would mean having to return to his home province, Shandong, to obtain the necessary documents. Chen was beaten severely in Shandong and kept under unlawful house arrest for more than a year and a half.
U.S. officials expressed hope for the new deal, but some also displayed caution.
In a closed phone briefing with human rights groups, one high-level State Department official acknowledged that Washington was relying on “good-faith assurances” from the Chinese government, according to several who were on the call.
“They were very careful not to describe it as a guarantee,” said one of those briefed, who requested anonymity in order to describe the conversation. “There seems to be a lot of caution given what happened the first time around.”
But in Beijing, a senior administration officials told reporters: “We believe that this process will proceed accordingly, and we have high confidence in its course.”
State Department officials said they were encouraged because diplomats had much better telephone access to Chen on Friday than the previous day. Chen spoke with Locke for 20 minutes, officials said, and met in his hospital room with an embassy doctor. The doctor saw a cast that had been placed on Chen’s right foot for three bones that were broken when he fled his village.
Analysts said it would make sense strategically for China to allow Chen to leave the country, because his departure would probably lessen his international visibility. Using the excuse of study abroad would also enable China’s leaders to avoid the perception of having caved to foreign pressure.
But the tentative agreement did not silence criticism by some over the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis. Among the complaints by Republicans and human rights groups was that U.S. officials were too trusting in that they neither secured adequate protections for Chen before escorting him off embassy grounds nor did they stay with him at the hospital.
Some rights advocates also noted that the original deal struck for Chen was unique in that he would have stayed in China rather than fled abroad, as many had expected.
“That was something no one had seen before,” said one human rights advocate, who requested anonymity to talk frankly about Chen’s case. “Would it have been better for the cause for him to stay in China under this unprecedented deal and struggle with the backing of the U.S.? Maybe, but the correct question is: Would it have been better for Chen and his family?”
Wan reported from Washington. Staff writer Dan de Vise in Washington and researchers Zhang Jie and Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.