Chinese human rights activist escapes house arrest, causes possible diplomatic crisis

The Takeaway

Chinese human rights activistChen Guangcheng escaped house arrest late last month and is believed to be sheltered at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

The incident has put the United States in a tough situation just as officials were touring improved relations between the two superpowers. Chen, a self-taught lawyer, was detained after campaigning against the government’s enforcement of its one-child policy through forced sterilization. He was jailed and ostensibly released, into a sort-of extra-legal home detention.

He says his family members were harassed and abused.

U.S. diplomat Kurt M. Campbell reportedly arrived in China on Sunday and is meeting with Chinese officials. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton went to China on Monday night on a previously schedule trip with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. However, most of the news surrounding Chen’s escape is speculative; both sides are remaining secretive.

“The Chinese authorities have said nothing, and the United States embassy has not even acknowledged that Mr. Campbell is in the country having any talks. That is the extent of the secrecy surrounding this,” said Viv Marsh, a reporter covering the story for the BBC. “What we’ve heard unofficially from friends of Chen Guangcheng, (from) another sympathizer, another very high profile activist, Hu Jia, (is) that he understands that Mr. Chen is in the United States embassy, and we’ve heard from China agents who’ve said their sources are telling them that talks are going on somewhere about his status.”

Some analysts believe the incident may cause the largest diplomatic problem between the United States and China since theTiananmen Square protestsin 1989. Marsh said the situation is very similar to Tiananmen Square, if the U.S. is harboring Chen, when political activistFang Lizhi was granted asylum in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

“That was a big issue between for U.S.-Chinese relations at the time. It really did do quite a lot of damage. Nowadays, China is a world power. It is much more assertive than it was a the time of Tiananmen, and it remains to be seen what damage Chen Guangcheng’s situation, if let unsorted, could cause,” Marsh said.

At this point, it is unknown what effect Chen’s escape will cause politically, if any at all. The Chinese government aggressively censors the Internet and the media in general. In this case, news of Chen’s escape has been squashed.

“In China’s state-controlled media, there is no word of his situation at all, and on the Weibo, which are the Twitter-like microblogging sites that they have in China — because Twitter itself is banned by the authorities — on Weibo, the name of Chen Guangcheng in censored. His village is censored, and apparently the word ’embassy,’ at the moment, is also censored,” Marsh said.

According to Marsh, Hu Jia said that despite Chen  escaping house arrest, he apparently does not wish to leave the country. 

“Mr. Hu has said that Chen Guangcheng does not want to go into exile. He doesn’t want asylum. What he wants, from  presumably Americans, is protection. He wants to be able to stay on in China, fight the battle that he wants to fight, argue his case for what wants to see in the China of the future, but obviously in the house arrest situation that he has been under for the past couple years, there was no way that he could do that,” Marsh said.

It is yet unknown what the situation will do to diplomatic relations between the United States and China. Hilary Clinton hassaid in the past that human rights violations in China shouldn’t interfere with other joint efforts.

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