Blind activist tells of threats against wife by Chinese officials

Thu, May 3, 2012, 01:00

CHEN GUANGCHENG, the blind Chinese legal activist at the centre of a stand-off between Washington and Beijing, left the US embassy yesterday following assurances from the Chinese that he and his family can live a normal life.

But the activist, who sought refuge at the embassy after his daring flight from house arrest last week, said later he wanted to leave China. He said this was because US officials had told him that Chinese authorities threatened to beat his wife to death had he not left the embassy.

The family was brought to Beijing by the Shandong guards who had beaten and harassed the family since his release from jail in 2010, friends said on Twitter, and Mr Chen was told they would be brought back there if he didn’t leave the US mission.

The deal as it stands seems to defuse a potentially explosive diplomatic row that would have undermined this year’s Sino-US strategic talks in Beijing. China has demanded an apology but Mr Chen’s position seems secured, once the US can ensure his and his family’s safety.

There were frantic negotiations to find a deal that allows the Chinese government to save face, keeps the US happy, and also guarantees Mr Chen’s safety.

US officials said they had taken him in to the mission initially on humanitarian grounds, to make sure he had medical attention for injuries picked up during his remarkable escape.

However, they insisted that Mr Chen had made it clear from the time of his arrival that he was not seeking asylum and that he intended to remain at the embassy for only a limited time.

They said US diplomats would “take a continuing interest in the case of Mr Chen and his family”, and would check on him at “regular intervals” to confirm the Chinese government’s commitments to the activist were being met.

A self-taught lawyer blinded by fever as a child, Mr Chen (40) is best known for exposing forced abortion and sterilisation practices in Linyi County in eastern Shandong Province, and for seeking legal redress for the victims.

He was jailed for four years in 2006 and, since his release in September 2010, local officials have kept him under house arrest and repeatedly beaten him and his family.

The high drama of his escape last week, and the timing of the diplomatic furore with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, in town for the Strategic Economic Dialogue, meant resolving this issue was never going to be easy.

Matters were complicated further when it became clear that Mr Chen intended to stay on in China – most dissidents who leave find they lose much of their impact when trying to work from overseas.

However, assurances were needed because local officials in Shandong Province have been rounding up the activists who helped him escape and it was clear there would have to be some guarantees of his safety. His later comments reflected his fear of reprisal against his family.

With major trade issues to be resolved, and with Washington seeking Chinese support in dealing with Iran and North Korea, there was no way either side wanted the talks to be overshadowed by the blind “barefoot lawyer”.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin was quoted on the Xinhua news agency as saying Mr Chen had been taken into the embassy by “abnormal methods” and the Chinese were “strongly dissatisfied” with the move. “The Chinese side will never accept interference by the US in Chinese domestic affairs. China demands an apology and a thorough investigation, and assurances that it will not happen again,” he said.

Phelim Kine, a senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the deal appeared to be a sign that “cooler heads had prevailed” in Beijing.

“But China remains a very dangerous place for Mr Chen and his family. There are too many unanswered questions,” said Mr Kine.