Fang Lizhi taught quantum theory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he died earlier this month. (John B. Carnett/Getty Images)

After the high drama of a 400-mile dash to freedom across northern China, Chen Guangcheng, a blind legal activist now reportedly under the protection of U.S. diplomats in Beijing, confronts more mundane challenges: filling in forms, listening to warnings about potential peril ahead, and waiting while U.S. and Chinese officials haggle over his fate.

That, at least, is what happened back in the summer of 1989 when Fang Lizhi, a dissident Chinese astrophysicist, entered the U.S. mission in Beijing a day after the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre and asked diplomats there for protection.

The diplomats “were mildly discouraging but didn’t rule out helping,” recalled Perry Link, a Princeton University China scholar who accompanied Fang. They explained that Fang would need to get to American soil before he could request political asylum.

To get the ball rolling, Fang filled in a visa application, the first step in what he hoped would be a swift journey to safety. It was more than a year before he got to the United States, ostensibly for medical treatment.

Worried that taking refuge with American diplomats would allow China’s Communist Party to portray the Tiananmen protest as a U.S.-­orchestrated conspiracy, Fang decided after his first meeting at the embassy that he didn’t want U.S. help after all. He left the embassy with his wife, Li Shuxian, to spend the night at a nearby Beijing hotel in the room of an absent Washington Post journalist.

“We didn’t turn him away. We just talked him into giving things some more thought,” said a U.S. diplomat who was involved in the discussions.

They told Fang, for example, about the case of Hungary’s Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, an outspoken foe of communism who spent almost 15 years stuck in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest after Soviet troops crushed the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

“When somebody comes to ask for asylum, you have to make sure they have really thought through what they are undertaking,” said the former diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You run through a checklist of things to discourage them.”

Fang later returned to the embassy in the middle of the night after U.S. diplomats sent word that President George H.W. Bush had personally approved giving him, his wife and son, Fang De, sanctuary.

Fang, with his wife, then spent nearly 13 months holed up in a windowless room that had previously served as an embassy clinic while senior U.S. officials and others, including former secretary of state Henry Kis­singer, trooped to Beijing to beg Chinese leaders to let the dissident leave China unmolested. The son, fed up with being confined to the embassy, left after just a few days and returned to his university studies without trouble.

The presence of Fang and his wife was cloaked in such deep secrecy that “only about six people in the embassy” knew of their whereabouts, James R. Lilley, the ambassador at the time, recalled in his memoir, “China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia.” Lilley’s wife found out when she stumbled on a high wall of books shielding Fang’s sleeping quarters.

A contentious figure

Deng Xiaoping, who blamed Fang for seven weeks of tumultuous student-led protests at Tiananmen, demanded that the scientist write a confession before he leave China. Lilley, meanwhile, became a “pariah for shielding Fang Lizhi,” the ambassador wrote in his book. The whole episode, noted Lilley, badly “complicated” relations already battered by the military assault on Tiananmen.

Getting Chinese leaders to agree to let Fang go took so long that the scientist managed to complete a scientific paper on “the periodicity of redshift distribution.” He used an aged Apple computer provided by the embassy and listed the U.S. Beijing mission as his “temporary mailing address” when he submitted the article to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory for publication.

Fang continued his scientific work after he left China, ending his career as a professor of physics at the University of Arizona. He died this month at his home in Tucson. He was 76.

Chen, the blind legal activist, is a far less contentious figure than Fang, against whom Deng, China’s paramount leader until his death in 1997, bore a deep personal animus. China’s quarrel with Chen, by contrast, involves mostly low-ranking officials in Shandong province.

Fang, denounced as a “black hand” behind the Tiananmen protests and pilloried as a dangerous criminal by party-­controlled media, faced a formal Chinese arrest warrant. Chen has been technically free — though closely monitored — since his release from prison in 2010. This, said John Kamm, a longtime campaigner on behalf of Chinese political prisoners, “means there should be no legal impediment for him to leave the country.”

Nonetheless, any U.S. role in protecting Chen will likely set up an acrimonious and possibly long tug of war between Washington and Beijing. A foreign dissident seeking refuge, added the former U.S. diplomat who was involved in Fang’s case, is “something enormously unwelcome. It creates huge problems politically and, also, logistically.”

The ‘real McCoy’

China Aid, a Christian group based in Texas that helped facilitate Chen’s escape from de facto house arrest in Shandong, said in a statement issued early Saturday that Chen “is under U.S. protection and high level talks are currently underway between U.S. and Chinese officials regarding Chen’s status.”

Bob Fu, the group’s president, described it as “a pivotal moment for U.S. human rights diplomacy” and urged that Chen be “handled like Professor Fang Lizhi” and not like Wang Lijun, a former Chongqing police chief who fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in early February, triggering a political earthquake whose aftershocks are still shaking the party.

Wang spent 30 hours in the consulate and, when he left after failing to secure an offer of protection, was quickly hustled to Beijing by state-security officials. He has not been seen or heard from since. His former boss, Bo Xilai, has since been purged in China’s biggest political crisis since Tiananmen.

Chen, the blind lawyer, is the “real McCoy,” said Princeton’s Link, and “is a completely different case” from the former police chief, who presided over a brutal crackdown on alleged gangsters, trampled due process and deployed torture to force people to confess.

“The U.S. was right not to get involved with Wang Lijun,” Link said. If Washington rebuffs Chen, however, “I’ll be the first to write an op-ed article denouncing the decision.”

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