Activist Chen Invited to NYU in Sign Standoff Is Ending

Activist Chen Guangcheng
Chen Guangcheng meets with his family as Gary Locke, U.S. Ambassador to China looks on at a hospital in Beijing on May 2. Source: U.S. Embassy Beijing Press Office via Bloomberg

The U.S. and China forged a new solution to the dilemma surrounding Chen Guangcheng after their original deal fell apart, opening a path for the legal activist to study at New York University.

New York University invited Chen to be a visiting scholar “either in New York or at one of our other global sites,” university spokesman John Beckman said today in an e-mailed statement. NYU School of Law professor Jerome Cohen, co-director of the school’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute, is a friend and adviser to Chen.

Chen has been offered a fellowship at an American university, and can be accompanied by his wife and two children, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement earlier in the day. China’s foreign ministry said Chen is free to apply to study abroad, and Nuland said the U.S. expects Chinese authorities will “expeditiously process his applications.”

“Over the course of the day, progress has been made to help him have the future that he wants and we will be staying in touch with him as this process moves forward,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is in Beijing for talks with Chinese leaders, said before the fellowship offer was announced.

The development came as Clinton and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner concluded two days of talks with Chinese officials on economic and diplomatic issues, an annual dialogue that was threatened by discord over Chen’s treatment. During that time, Clinton was in frequent contact about Chen with U.S. diplomats, according to a U.S. officials who briefed reporters on the condition he not be identified.

No. 1 Creditor

The ability to manage such human-rights disputes, one of the most incendiary elements of the Sino-American relationship, affects the large and growing stake the two countries have in economic cooperation. China now holds $1.18 trillion of U.S. government debt, ahead of the second-largest foreign creditor, Japan, with $1.1 trillion, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

The relatively quick resolution demonstrates the importance each country places on its relationship with the other, said Chris Johnson, a senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency.

“Both sides looked over the edge yesterday and decided it was time to turn the wheel back from the cliff,” Johnson said in a telephone interview.

Even during the human rights dispute, Chinese and U.S. negotiators managed to arrive at some significant agreements, including an increase in the level foreign stakeholders can own in securities firms, he said.

“That’s very helpful to the Goldman Sachs of the world,” Johnson said.

Managing Disagreements

In closing remarks at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, Clinton said it is important “to acknowledge that we cannot allow disagreements to derail our relationship or hold back our cooperation on a broad range of matters.”

“You have to look at the trend lines, not just the headlines,” she said. “And that is especially true in the China-US relationship. The trend is clear. Our countries are growing more interdependent and so we need to build a resilient relationship that allows both of us to thrive and meet our regional and global responsibilities without unhealthy competition, rivalry or conflict.”

The outline of the arrangement emerged after Chen changed his mind over a previous deal for him to remain in China and study law, saying he feared for his family’s safety. The prospect of Chen’s departure to the U.S. may help limit any political damage to President Barack Obama, with Republican lawmakers threatening a probe of whether Chen was pressured to leave the U.S. embassy in Beijing, where he had been given refuge.

Study Abroad

If Chen “wants to study abroad, he can, like any Chinese citizen, go through proper channels and relevant departments and procedures according to law,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said, according to a statement.

While State Department officials expressed confidence that a firm deal had been reached, they refused to discuss what guarantees, if any, they got from the Chinese on their commitment to provide “expeditiously” passports that Chen and his family will need to leave the country.

There have been no discussion about whether Chinese authorities would permit Chen to return if he goes to the U.S., according to a second U.S. officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity because the diplomatic talks were confidential.

Son’s Birthday

U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke spoke with Chen for half an hour today, and Chen met with embassy personnel at the hospital, the official said. Chen is pleased with his hospital care, the official said.

Chen’s children, who were being treated for fevers, were given haircuts and new clothes, the official said. The diplomats brought presents for his son as it was his birthday, and the hospital staff brought a cake, the official said.

Chen was imprisoned for more than four years after representing villagers who opposed forced sterilizations and abortions, and then was held under house arrest until he escaped in late April. He told American diplomats during his weeklong stay in the U.S. embassy that he wanted to remain in China, and he left the compound in a deal worked out in talks with Chinese leaders, U.S. officials said. He later said he feared for his wife and children and wanted to travel outside China.

‘Extremely Sorry’

In the account of the conversation between Chen and his friend Guo that was posted on Twitter and released by the State Department, Guo said Chen told him he felt “extremely sorry for the pressure brought to the relevant parties including the U.S. embassy,” that he only wanted to visit the U.S. temporarily, and that he left the embassy on May 2 of his own free will.

In an interview today with the Washington Post, Chen shifted from criticism of the U.S. to praise, saying the U.S. embassy helped him “a lot” and that the Chinese government wasn’t upholding its side of the agreement. He said he wasn’t “tricked” into leaving the embassy and could have stayed if he’d wanted.

The U.S. and China have growing economic incentives for keeping their relationship on track even in the face of human-rights disputes such as the conflict over Chen.

Trade Ties

The U.S. had a $295 billion trade deficit with China last year, compared with a $6.2 billion deficit in 1989, according to U.S. Commerce Department data. American exports to China, now the third-largest destination abroad for American goods, have soared to $104 billion from $5.8 billion. Machinery, farm products, aircraft and medical instruments are the top export categories, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

China overcame Canada as the top buyer of U.S. farm goods in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, with purchases totaling $19.9 billion, up almost $5 billion from the previous year. China’s imports accounted for about 14 percent of the $137.4 billion in U.S. agricultural goods shipped overseas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About 75 percent of China’s purchases were soybeans and cotton, the USDA said.

Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang told Geithner that the two nations should further strengthen macroeconomic policy coordination to promote economic growth, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.

Beyond the economy, the expanding bilateral engagement includes issues from Iran, Syria and freedom of the seas to intellectual property rights, trade, investment, and cyber crime and espionage.

“Both countries are in their own political transitions,” Johnson, the former CIA analyst, said. “This signals that they want smooth bilateral relations.”

— With assistance by Indira Lakshmanan, and Michael Forsythe

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