High-level talks between U.S. and Chinese officials continued on Tuesday over the fate of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, with an agreement on political asylum for Chen and his family now looking like the most likely route out of growing diplomatic tension, a U.S.-based rights group said.
"Chinese and U.S. officials are in talks right now," said Bob Fu, director of the U.S.-based ChinaAid Christian rights group, which has been one of the chief sources of news of Chen since he slipped past dozens of guards in the middle of the night and was taken to Beijing by fellow activists last week.
He is now believed to be inside the U.S. Embassy, although neither Washington nor Beijing have confirmed this publicly.
Fu, who is in close contact with activists close to Chen has briefed U.S. officials on his case, said he believes that a political asylum deal now seems the most likely outcome, in spite of Chen's initial requests to remain in China.
Both U.S. and Chinese officials have repeatedly declined to comment on Chen's case, which looks set to cast a shadow over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's imminent arrival in Beijing for annual strategic and economic talks.
"Apart from the question of Chen's safety, the safety of his family and of the people who helped him, like [Nanjing-based activist] He Peirong are also key negotiating points," Fu said.
Asked to comment on Chen's reported desire to remain in China, Fu said: "I think that probability is very small."
Too much support?
He said Chen commands too much support to be allowed to remain in China amid an ongoing political crisis that has already seen the fall of once-rising political star Bo Xilai.
"In the current Chinese political climate, where the Bo Xilai drama hasn't even played itself out yet and with the 18th Party Congress coming up, I think it would be a huge problem for them to let him stay in China," Fu said.
"I don't think any of China's leaders would have the courage to promise that they could deliver the guarantees [Chen was seeking]," he added.
In a video released on YouTube shortly after his dramatic escape, Chen detailed a series of beatings and other rights abuses against his family, naming the local officials involved and calling on Premier Wen Jiabao to take charge of an investigation.
Chen was released from a four-year jail term in September 2010, but had been prevented, along with his wife Yuan Weijing and young daughter Chen Kesi, from leaving his house.
Chen said in the video that Yuan had suffered broken bones during a beating last summer, but was denied medical attention.
Shortly after Chen's escape was discovered, local officials detained his brother and nephew, as well as Nanjing-based rights activist He Peirong, who had helped drive Chen away from Shandong on the night of his escape.
Shandong-based lawyer Liu Weidong said on Tuesday that he had "run into a spot of trouble" since agreeing to represent Chen's nephew, Chen Kegui.
"I ran into some trouble [on Monday]," Liu said. "It's not convenient for me to discuss anything with you."
Chinese Internet censors have moved quickly to delete references to Chen, his family, and even the code-word "Shawshank" that refers to his escape, from popular microblogging services.
A journalist from the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper was chased away on Monday from Chen's home village of Dongshigu, where guards are still encircling the family's home and surrounding streets.
Chen had exposed abuses like forced abortions and sterilizations by local family planning officials under China’s “One Child” policy, as well as official harassment and attacks on families who exceed local birth quotas.
He served a four-year, three-month jail term for "obstructing traffic," which ended in September 2010, after which he was held under house arrest for 20 months until his escape on April 21.
Talks are due to begin on Thursday between Chinese officials, Clinton, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on a wide range of economic and political issues.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.