US-China Standoff over Dissident Appears Near

Posted May 4th, 2012 at 2:05 pm (UTC-5)
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China says dissident Chen Guangcheng may apply to study abroad, amid indications of a breakthrough in the diplomatic dispute that began when he escaped house arrest and fled to the U.S. embassy.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Beijing Friday that she sees progress in the Chen case, and is “encouraged” by the latest Chinese position. The secretary of state has been in the Chinese capital for annual high-level talks that have been largely overshadowed by the Chen drama.

American officials confirmed reports that Chen has received a letter from a U.S. university offering him a fellowship. One of his friends said the school is New York University, and that the blind activist hopes to travel to the U.S. for a while before returning to China.

As the latest events were unfolding, Chen told VOA's Mandarin Service by telephone that a high-ranking government official delivered fresh flowers to his Beijing hospital room.

China's foreign ministry spokesperson Liu Weimin said that Chen can apply to leave the country to study, “just like any other Chinese citizen.”

The announcement followed a series of appeals by Chen, who says he is worried about his safety and wants to travel to the U.S. “for a time.”

Chen originally agreed to a deal reached by U.S. and Chinese authorities that would allow him to stay in a “safe” place in China and study law. But he changed his mind hours after leaving U.S. protection, saying his family had been threatened.

Some human rights activists say the U.S. should be skeptical about the Chinese government's assurances regarding the safety of Chen. Phelim Kine, a senior Asia researcher at U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, tells VOA that he is waiting to see if China follows through on its promises to guarantee Chen's well-being.

“Based on the Chinese government's atrocious track record of respecting the rights of Chen Guangcheng and his family, the Chinese government's talk is cheap. And what is needed is substantive, verifiable, action.”

Clinton told Chinese President Hu Jintao Friday that the U.S. is committed to “bridging differences wherever possible,” but said that the U.S.-China relationship is “stronger than it's ever been.”

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said the talks have been “highly productive,” and that the two countries have “accommodated each other's major concerns.” But he urged Clinton to respect differences between the two countries.

Chen is a self-taught lawyer and human rights activist who has been blind since childhood. He was given a four-year prison sentence in 2006 for exposing abuses under China's forced abortion policy aimed at population control. He had been under house arrest since 2010, before escaping on April 22.