The United States and China may heave a sigh of relief that the crisis over blind activist Chen Guangcheng is virtually over. But the agonizing fact remains that even a physically impaired human rights defender cannot find his rightful place in Chinese society, experts say.
Chen was the first Chinese dissident to have sought sanctuary in the American Embassy in Beijing without demanding political asylum in the U.S. He had hoped that by highlighting the alleged abuses he and his family suffered at the hands of police, the Chinese authorities would give him protection to remain in the country and continue with his human rights campaign.
But as he left the embassy after assurances by Chinese authorities that he would not be harmed, he was convinced by his lawyer and friends that he, his wife, their children, and other family members would not be safe if he continued with his forays exposing forced abortions and sterilizations.
Chen then changed his mind and sought to leave China.
Following his multiple media interviews highlighting the beatings and torture he and his family endured when he was held under house arrest in Shandong province, U.S. and Chinese officials effectively agreed Friday that he be allowed to go to the United States with his family, sources said.
The Chinese government agreed "in good faith" to allow any request by Chen, a 40-year-old self-taught lawyer, to travel to the U.S. to further his studies, the sources said.
"It strikes me that it would be impossible to reach a deal with the Chinese that you could have any confidence in, unless that deal involves Mr. Chen coming to U.S. soil," Randy Shriver, a former senior U.S. State Department official handling East Asian issues, told RFA.
"Nobody will be able to guarantee his safety, or guarantee his family’s safety or any kind of quality of life if he remains in China," he said.
Shriver said that Chen's case highlights concerns that even as China makes rapid economic progress, it remains "insecure and uncomfortable" with people such as Chen, who has been blind since childhood and suffered for nearly seven years at the hands of the authorities, either in jail or under house arrest.
"In the Chinese system, he is seen as a great threat who needs to be silenced," Shriver said.
Chen’s compelling personal story and his legal advocacy may have made him something of a folk hero in Shandong, but millions of ordinary Chinese do not know of him because China's censors had erased his story for years from the online and print media.
Only this week, Chinese state media finally featured Chen's name as they went to condemn the U.S. government for giving him sanctuary at the embassy for six days.
"Thanks to the country’s blanket Internet censorship, millions of ordinary Chinese are unfamiliar with Chen’s name and are just now learning the long, sad story of [his plight]," said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.
"Chen’s case is familiar to many outside China because it sharply draws the contrast between the Chinese government’s promises of a 'harmonious society' and the often harsh reality of extralegal abuse of peaceful critics by Communist Party officials," she said.
Chen is currently undergoing treatment at a Beijing hospital for a broken foot sustained during his daring escape from 19 months of house arrest. He was confined to his home after he served four years in prison for defending women forced to have abortions under China's one-child policy, as well as other victims of official misconduct in Shandong's Linyi prefecture.
Despite the deal for Chen and his immediate family to travel to the United States, rights groups are concerned over possible Chinese government retaliation against his wider family and network of supporters, who may be encouraged by Chen's case to challenge the leadership of the ruling Chinese Community Party.
Chen’s older brother is believed to be in police custody while the whereabouts of his nephew and mother are unknown.
Chen's case also threatens to enter the campaign in the run-up to U.S. presidential polls this November. President Barack Obama's administration has come under attack from his rival Republican party leaders for allegedly being too soft with the Chinese leadership over the issue.
Republican senators plan to introduce a congressional resolution criticizing the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis, backing Chen’s work in China against forced abortions, and attacking China over its rights record, a move that could anger Beijing and torpedo the deal for him to go to the U.S.
"The U.S. must tell the world exactly what the Chinese government has promised regarding Chen and his family, who made those promises, and, crucially, what concrete steps the U.S. will take to ensure that Chen Guangcheng and his family can lead the life they want to live," said Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Director Catherine Baber.
"The Chinese authorities must also honor their commitment to both Chen and the U.S. to thoroughly and impartially investigate his claims of abuse while under illegal house arrest in Shandong province, and ensure the results of any investigation are made public."
The commitment was part of a bilateral deal that resulted in Chen leaving the U.S. Embassy after deciding to remain in China. But it turned sour after Chen had a change of heart and wanted to leave the country for the interest of his and his family's safety.
Under the new deal, based on details made public, China's Foreign Ministry said Chen can apply for travel permits to study abroad.
The State Department said an American university—later identified as New York University—has offered Chen a fellowship with provisions for his family. It expects Beijing to process the travel permits quickly and U.S. visas to be issued subsequently.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was in Beijing engaging at the highest levels to end the Chen crisis, sought to drive home Washington's message that human rights was paramount in bilateral ties.
"This is not just about well-known activists," Clinton said. "It's about the human rights and aspirations of more than a billion people here in China and billions more around the world. And it's about the future of this great nation and all nations."
Journey of no return?
Going by past deals, however, the Chinese authorities are unlikely to allow Chen to return to China after his studies in the U.S., especially if he continues to strongly criticize the country's policies.
This could dilute his clout as an effective human rights defender at home, some dissidents said.
Many Chinese dissidents who sought refuge in the U.S. have seen their influence fade in China and even in the U.S.
“At first the news media pays a great deal of attention to you, but then it wanes,” said Wei Jingsheng, a famous Chinese political prisoner but who faded into relative obscurity after Beijing granted him medical parole in 1997 and sent him packing to the United States.
“You lose your leverage to expose the crimes of the Chinese government,” Wei told the New York Times in an interview from his home in Maryland state, saying that he now struggles to support himself through private donations, government grants, and speaking engagements.
A group of Chinese dissidents who arrived in the U.S. after Beijing's crackdown on Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 has sent an open appeal last month to the Chinese authorities, asking for permission to visit home.
"We believe that returning to one's motherland is an inalienable right of a citizen," said Wang Dan, one of the most visible of the student leaders in the Tiananmen Square protests and among those who wrote the letter.
"As rulers, you should not deprive us of our most fundamental human right because of differences in political views between you and us," the letter said. "As China is now undergoing profound changes, the protection of human rights and advancement of democracy are the wishes of all Chinese people."