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The murky diplomacy surrounding Chen Guangcheng

Chinese activist activist Chen Guangcheng (L) is seen in a wheelchair pushed by a nurse at the Chaoyang hospital in Beijing on May 2, 2012.
Chinese activist activist Chen Guangcheng (L) is seen in a wheelchair pushed by a nurse at the Chaoyang hospital in Beijing on May 2, 2012.
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

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On Thursday, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) held an emergency congressional hearing regarding the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Chen, who was recently being housed in the American Embassy until leaving for a hospital room in Beijing, called in to the hearing to express his desire to come to the United States to rest, as well as his fear for his family’s safety. Smith, chairman of the Congressional Executive Commission on China, told Chen that this situation is a test for both China and the U.S., and plans to have a follow-up hearing with testimonials from administration officials.

Chen gave up refuge in Beijing’s American Embassy when an American official allegedly told him that Chinese authorities threatened to kill his wife if he stayed. The Obama Administration is denying that claim, as well as the accusation that Chen’s release was a strategic move on part of the U.S. to smooth over relations with China in advance of lengthy economic talks. Those talks were definitely sullied by the entire ordeal, as both countries expressed their disapproval of how the other was handling the situation.

Today, the U.S. has announced that Chen will be allowed to enter the country to accept a temporary university fellowship and receive medical treatment. China is expected to expedite Chen’s application process for travel documents, and the U.S. government will also give top priority to visa requests for Chen and his family. The entire affair is quickly becoming politicized, as human rights activists calling for Chen’s immediate release to the U.S. are being joined by the likes of Mitt Romney and Republicans in Congress.

What is the historical diplomatic protocol for handling this type of situation? What are the rules for seeking political asylum in the U.S.? Did the embassy do the right thing in letting Chen leave in the first place? Did Chen leave of his own volition, or was he coerced? Will the university fellowship be an appropriate resolution to this situation? Is this the last phase of this ordeal, or is there still more to come?


Ted Fishman, China expert and author of “China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World”

Sophie Richardson, China Director, Human Rights Watch