Dissident Said to Seek Safety, Not Exit

BEIJING—Activist Chen Guangcheng’s apparent unwillingness to leave China could complicate any negotiations between Washington and Beijing over his fate, bringing the two sides into territory that has been largely uncharted in previous bids by Chinese dissidents seeking U.S. help.

Chinese and U.S. officials maintained their silence Monday about the location of Mr. Chen, the blind activist who acquaintances say escaped from his guarded home last week and made his way to Beijing. These people say they believe Mr. Chen sought U.S. protection. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing hasn’t commented on the assertion but also hasn’t denied it.

China-U.S. relations could hit a tense point as speculation rises that Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng is being sheltered at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. The WSJ’s Deborah Kan speaks to reporter Josh Chin about what–if any–options the U.S. has.

Mr. Chen earned official ire as a critic of forced abortions under China’s one-child policy and had been kept under virtual house arrest since September 2010. In statements, he has said local officials and plainclothes guards confined him to his home without charge or formal arrest.

Chinese authorities continue to probe his escape. On Monday, they released activist and Beijing-based scholar Guo Yushan, who says he helped Mr. Chen flee. “They asked every question they could about Chen Guangcheng and wanted every detail about his escape,” said Mr. Guo, who said police had held him for 50 hours for an interrogation process he said was long but civilized.

Activists say they fear for the safety of Mr. Chen’s wife and young daughter, who remained in the family home when the activist fled. The European Union on Monday called on China “to exercise utmost restraint in dealing with the matter, including avoiding harassment of his family members or any person associated with him.”

Mr. Chen strongly wishes to stay in China, analysts and human-rights experts say.

“He believes no power can stop China from moving in the direction rule of law. He’s optimistic and he wants to be involved in that process,” said Hu Jia, an environmental and human-rights activist who said he met with Mr. Chen after he arrived in Beijing and helped decide, in discussions with other activists, that Mr. Chen should be moved to the U.S. mission. “He went to the embassy not to seek asylum, but for safety.”

Mr. Chen appeared to lay the groundwork for being allowed to stay, some legal analysts say, in the video he released after his escape. In it, he cast local officials as flouting the law for keeping him under what he characterized asa brutal form of informal house arrest, but avoided denigrating the central government.

For Mr. Chen to stay in China, friends say, Beijing would need to provide him with an iron-clad guarantee of safety for himself and his family, while vigorously pursuing the people allegedly responsible for mistreating him.

“Without those promises, he would be grabbed and taken away as soon as he left the embassy,” Mr. Hu said.

Should Mr. Chen in fact be under U.S. protection, agreeing to such a deal could prove politically risky for the Obama administration, experts say.

“There’s not a lot of precedent for the U.S. treating China as a good-faith negotiating partner on human-rights issues,” says Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based human-rights researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The Chinese government might be sincere in promising to protect Mr. Chen and his family, he said, “but the way the case has been handled up till now makes it hard to trust any commitments they make to rule of law.”

Susan Shirk, who served as a deputy assistant state secretary under Bill Clinton, says that although allowing Mr. Chen to stay in China “would be the best outcome,” she believes the lack of any mechanism that would allow the U.S. to monitor and ensure his safety was highly problematic.

“We’re not going to let him walk out of the embassy with just a handshake from the Chinese government,” she said.

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Protesters in sunglasses rallied in support of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng in Hong Kong on Monday.

The two governments have successfully negotiated the release of dissidents to the U.S. in the past. But only once have those negotiations involved a dissident being harbored by the U.S. on Chinese soil. That was in 1989, when the U.S. Embassy sheltered the late astrophysicist Fang Lizhi and his wife in the wake of the Tiananmen Square uprisings.

The couple would spend roughly a year inside the embassy, departing for the U.S. in 1990 after tense negotiations between Washington and Beijing and an offer from Japan to provide aid to China in exchange for their release.

But Mr. Fang’s case is of little use as a road map, said Human Rights Watch Senior Asia Researcher Phelim Kline.

“To a large extent this is terra nova. It’s a different China than you had in 1989,” he said. Whereas Beijing was diplomatically under siege following the 1989 crackdown, the combination of China’s fast economic growth with its decisive handling of the 2008 financial crisis has given many in Beijing a new confidence.

While simply allowing Mr. Chen to leave might appeal to many Chinese leaders as a way of sidelining him, analysts say, others might view it as a U.S. victory. Additionally, Beijing wouldn’t relish any appearance it is kowtowing to Washington just before its sensitive once-a-decade leadership transition beginning late this year.

“If they were to let him go, what does that mean? That means Beijing will probably be succumbing to any such attempt to seek asylum in the American Embassy,” said Zhu Feng, an expert on U.S.-China relations at Beijing University.

Write to Josh Chin at josh.chin@wsj.com

A version of this article appeared May 1, 2012, on page A9 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Chinese Activist Said to Seek Safety, Not Exit.

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