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Bo Scandal Gives U.S. Opening on China Activist

May 01, 2012

This undated photo shows outspoken government critic Hu Jia, right, sharing a light moment with blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng after his escape from house arrest, at an undisclosed location in Beijing. Source: AFP/GettyImages

This undated photo shows outspoken government critic Hu Jia, right, sharing a light moment with blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng after his escape from house arrest, at an undisclosed location in Beijing. Source: AFP/GettyImages

China’s struggle to contain its biggest political shakeup in two decades may give the Obama administration an opening to resolve the case of a blind activist who reportedly fled to the American embassy in Beijing.

A U.S. official confirmed for the first time yesterday that negotiations on the fate of Chen Guangcheng are under way in the Chinese capital between Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and Chinese officials. The official spoke on condition of anonymity about the sensitive talks ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s arrival today in Beijing for annual meetings.

Chen is under American protection in Beijing after escaping house arrest in Shandong province last week, ChinaAid, a human rights group based in Midland, Texas, reported. Clinton vowed April 30 to raise human rights issues with Chinese authorities during talks in Beijing this week, and Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Michael Posner is among the administration officials accompanying her.

China has little incentive to take a hard line on Chen as it grapples with the ouster of Politburo member Bo Xilai and the arrest of his wife and an aide on suspicion of killing a British businessman, former U.S. State Department official Kenneth Quinones said. Bo’s downfall has sparked the biggest upheaval since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

“Eventually a reason will be found to admit him to the United States for medical reasons or to allow him to go to a third nation,” said Quinones, now a professor at Akita International University in Japan. “China’s interest right now is to retain the respect of the international community and minimize potential damage to the future image of China.”

Similar Case

The Chen case resembles that of Fang Lizhi, a physics professor who was housed in the U.S. embassy in Beijing for 13 months before he left the country after the Tiananmen uprising.

“It worked for Fang Lizhi after a long, long period of waiting,” said Lowell Dittmer, a professor of political science and China specialist at the University of California, Berkeley. “So I think it should be possible -- it’s basically a question of China saving face.”

Officials from both countries have rushed to resolve Chen’s case as China prepares to host Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner this week for the annual talks. Campbell arrived in Beijing April 29, earlier than planned, to prepare for the gathering, two U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

While declining to comment directly on Chen’s case, President Barack Obama said April 30, “Every time we meet with China the issue of human rights comes up.”

Romney’s Advice

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Obama’s presumptive Republican opponent in November’s presidential election, said that Obama should negotiate “one on one” with Chinese leaders to ensure the safety of a dissident’s family against government authorities.

Obama needs to convey that “there should be a real effort on the part of the Chinese government to make sure that the abuses that have been described against Mister Chen’s wife and his family stop immediately,” Romney said yesterday on CBS’s “This Morning.”

Complicating matters is the uncertainty of whether Chen is willing to leave China, said Stuart Harris, an emeritus professor of international relations at Australian National University in Canberra.

“The Americans would have to persuade him that he has to go, otherwise his family is not safe,” Harris said. “That would be the first obstacle to overcome. The second would be China’s willingness to let him go. At the present time they’ve got a lot of problems on their plate without having another one.”

Harry Wu

Another possible template for the Chen case is that of Harry Wu, who was deported from China in 1995, hours after he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for spying. A harsh sentence for Chen followed by a deportation is another way China could justify his release, Berkeley’s Dittmer said.

“I would say that at this point the Chinese government is trying to negotiate a deal in which he travels to a third country, not the United States and not staying in China,” said Linda Jakobson, East Asia program director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. “Most dissidents who leave China become rather rapidly less influential than when they were in China standing up to the authorities.”

Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai, was taken into custody for involvement in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, Xinhua News Agency reported April 10. The state-run agency said Gu and Heywood had “a conflict over economic interests.” Bo, 62, was suspended as Communist Party chief of the municipality of Chongqing in March.

‘No Information’

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, speaking at a news conference in Beijing April 29 said he had “no information” about Chen. Asked about Chen on “Fox News Sunday,” Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan said, “We are working very closely with the individuals involved in this,” and declined further comment.

Obama has “faced similar situations” in which he’s had to balance human rights and diplomatic issues, and the U.S. government will “find the right way forward,” Brennan said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Patrick Harrington in Tokyo at; Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at

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