China: Chen May Apply To Study Abroad

In a statement on its website Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said activist Chen Guangcheng would be allowed to apply to study abroad. Chen, who had escaped from house arrest, earlier said he wanted asylum in the U.S. But before that, he had told U.S. officials he would like to remain on Chinese soil.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Beijing, American officials are working feverishly to end a diplomatic crisis over a Chinese dissident. It erupted just as the U.S. Secretaries of State and Treasury arrived this week for high level talks with the Chinese on economic and security issues. On Wednesday, diplomats on both sides thought they had found an agreement that would enable human rights activist Chen Guangcheng to go free. But that fell apart.

Now we hear there may be another deal in the works, and for the latest we turn to NPR's Louisa Lim, who joins us from Beijing. And Louisa, what are we hearing at this point?

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Well, the Chinese foreign ministry has just released a very short statement, and it says that if Chen Guangcheng wants, he can apply to study abroad through normal channels in accordance with the law like any other citizen. So this could actually be a really elegant solution for a very difficult diplomatic problem.

It means that Chen would not have to apply for political asylum, which he's always said he didn't want to do. He could theoretically go to the U.S. for a while to study, and then return to China if he decided to do that. And he could also get to study at university, which is something that he's always wanted to do, and he has a letter of invitation from New York University.

So if this deal sticks, there'll be a big sigh of relief from all sides.

GREENE: You know, Louisa, we thought that there was a deal before. And that fell apart. Tell us, if you can, why that went wrong, and is there any reason to believe that this deal might hold?

LIM: Yes, I mean the last deal, Chen had agreed to stay in China and study. He was told that he would have assurances as to his safety. And so he left the U.S. embassy to go to hospital to get treatment. And that was where it all started to go wrong for him. He began to really get cold feet.

This morning he even said that he felt his situation in hospital was dangerous. And that was really because for the last two days he's been complaining that U.S. embassy officials had not been able to meet him face to face. They have met with his wife on the hospital grounds, but they haven't seen him.

And he also complained that his phone calls had been intercepted. Sometimes his mobile phone - he couldn't use it at all.

And then another friend who tried to visit, Jiang Tianyong, was very badly beaten up, and I spoke to his wife this morning, Jiang Tianyong's wife, and she said he was so badly beaten that he lost hearing in one ear completely and has compromised hearing in the other. And that was because he tried to visit Chen Guangcheng in hospital.

And at the time, I mean it looked as if he had swapped house arrest for detention in a hospital under state security, and I think that really, really worried him.

GREENE: Louisa, is there any way you can help us understand the behavior of the Chinese? I mean, if indeed they are beating someone who is trying to come visit him in the hospital, if they're restricting access, restricting phone calls, how do you account for that on one hand, but then, you know, see the Chinese saying that he can leave the country?

LIM: Yes, it's really very difficult to know what's going on. I mean, the way the Chinese government makes decisions is something that is not at all transparent. You must remember, the Chinese government, it's not monolithic. There are different arms of it with different interests.

And one political commentator explained it to me like this. He said he feared that Chen Guangcheng was actually a pawn in a domestic political power struggle, and that the security apparatus had control of him while he was in hospital and that they were playing him off against the more reformist politicians in the foreign ministry who are the ones who issued this statement.

I mean, we don't know what will happen down the line. Chen Guangcheng, he still doesn't have a passport, and neither does any other members of his family. So there's still a long way to go. And we don't know whether this deal will stick. But the very fact that the foreign affairs ministry is confident enough to release this statement, that must be significant.

GREENE: Louisa, thanks very much.

LIM: Thanks, David.

GREENE: We've been speaking to NPR's Louisa Lim, who is following this unfolding diplomatic situation in Beijing between the U.S. and Chinese surrounding the case of the human rights activist Chen Guangcheng.

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