China, U.S. Resolve Blind Activist's Fate

Richard McGregor, Washington bureau chief for the Financial Times, talks to Steve Inskeep about how Chen Guangcheng may impact Thursday's talks between the U.S. and China. The blind activist left the U.S. Embassy in Beijing Wednesday, and U.S. officials escorted him to a hospital.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

He's Richard McGregor. He's Washington bureau chief of the Financial Times. He spent years reporting in China and is author of "The Party: The Secret World Of China's Communist Rulers."

Welcome to the program.

RICHARD MCGREGOR: Good morning.

INSKEEP: He's in our studios here in Washington.

Would you make of the way this case has been reportedly resolved?

MCGREGOR: Well, you know, he was escorted from the embassy to the hospital. But, frankly, he can't be exported around China for the rest of his life. And in the past, Chen was actually snatched from the capital by the local authorities in the city of Linyi in Shandong. And who's to say what can happen in the future, so assurances only go so far.

I mean the Chinese clearly want it resolved, as well. But what happens in one month, two months? What happens when Chen starts to - in his activism again, which he clearly - is in his blood, while he's studying law? So it's a...

INSKEEP: The Chinese authorities surely have not given them a pass for anything he may do in the future.

MCGREGOR: Well, nobody in China has the free pass like that to challenge the authorities forever. So it's a temporary solution and, frankly, a very quick one. You must remember, the last time a dissident took refuge in the Chinese Embassy after 1989, the physicist Fang Lizhi, he was there for about 13 months, I think. So this is a remarkably quick, a temporary resolution to the issue.

INSKEEP: Can you help us understand what made Chen Guangcheng such an irritant to Chinese authorities? It's been pointed out that he was in many cases just insisting that China follow its own laws, like a ban on forced abortions...

MCGREGOR: Yes. Well, he's an altogether heroic figure. I mean you couldn't make him up, really. He's blind. He's a self-taught lawyer. He was helping villagers to fight forced abortions. But it's one of these weird things in China. I don't think people in the central government really wanted him locked up for five years, but local authorities have great power. And it's local authorities in a large city in Shandong Province, which, you know, snatched him off the streets in the capital, put him in prison.

Then he went - when he was released from prison about 18 months ago, kept him in this brutal house arrest, caused enormous, sort of, bad publicity for China. They do care about that, but they seem to be unwilling or unable to do anything about it.

INSKEEP: The local authorities are perfectly willing to defy the national authorities in China.

MCGREGOR: Absolutely. And the local authorities, the leaders of the city, of that city have since been promoted. So the Chinese system has many different levels, many different power centers, and the central authorities can't always just click their fingers.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Richard McGregor, can you put this in some perspective for us? How many dissidents like this are there around China, who find themselves, you know, in these situations, you know, put under house arrest and so forth by the government? I mean, we hear about a few names coming up when U.S. officials, you know, want to raise them, but, I mean, are there a lot of people like this around the country?

MCGREGOR: Well, I mean, he's a particular case and a particularly symbolic case, but there's many people who are subject to arbitrary authority and arbitrary detention on - I don't know whether - how many you would put it - you know, hundreds, thousands, or whatever.

But in some respects in China, they are at the sort of at the margins of the political debate. And within China, he doesn't get much publicity. His story isn't written up. So in that respect he's not central to political debate in China. He's more a symbol of, you know, the pressure for change from the sides.

INSKEEP: Well, let me follow up on that with Louisa Lim who's still on the line with us from Beijing. Louisa, has Chen Guangcheng actually become more famous in China, as much as you can tell, because of this incident?

LOUISA LIM. BYLINE: Yes, I think he has, but it really depends who you ask. If you look at online communities, people who are on the Chinese version of Twitter, Weibo, many of them know who he is, and there's been all kinds of ways of getting around the censors to talk about his case.

People have worn sunglasses in their profile pictures to show their support for him and things like that, because his name has been censored, searching for his name has been censored, so they've used all kinds of methods to get around those - that censorship. But if you ask ordinary people on the street, very few people will actually know who he is.

And I think that's another thing which will be interesting, whether - when he goes to study, then if he really will be allowed to go online. In that case, I mean, you know, even more people will find out about him, and that will pose a very big challenge to the authorities in the future.

INSKEEP: Louisa, just - we've got a couple of seconds here. What happens now with these meetings, diplomatic meetings, already scheduled, involving Hillary Clinton, that are going on this week?

BYLINE: Yes, well they begin tomorrow, and Clinton is here with Geithner, Timothy Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, and about 200 officials. And it - I mean it will be really interesting to see whether the U.S. response to the Chinese demand for an apology is enough for the Chinese side, and I think that may become clear in the way that the talks play out tomorrow and in the next few days.

INSKEEP: And Richard McGregor, in a few seconds, does this case underline a fundamental difference, still, between China and the United States?

MCGREGOR: Absolutely. The two political systems are fundamentally different. You can't wish it away, and it's going to come up in lots of different ways, I think, for our lifetimes.

INSKEEP: No matter how big the trade relationship gets.

MCGREGOR: Absolutely. I mean, the two are in tension.

INSKEEP: Richard McGregor, thanks very much.

MCGREGOR: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's a reporter for The Financial Times.

GREENE: And NPR's Louisa Lim in Beijing, thanks for joining us, Louisa.

BYLINE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And again, a Chinese dissident has been let out of the U.S. Embassy, taken to a hospital.

We'll bring you more as we learn it on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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