In a photo released by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Chen Guangcheng talks… (U.S. Embassy )
BEIJING — Tapping a visa track to America used by thousands of Chinese students, U.S. officials say they have struck a face-saving compromise with China over the fate of a blind Chinese human rights activist, possibly resolving a messy diplomatic dispute that brought deep embarrassment to both countries.
The U.S. State Department said Friday that it had secured Chinese agreement to allow Chen Guangcheng to apply to study in the United States, apparently accompanied by his family, under terms that would not require him to seek formal political asylum.
That arrangement appeared to satisfy the Chinese government, which had berated the Obama administration for what it said was interference in an internal matter by shielding the dissident at its embassy in Beijing. But in a statement Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Chen, who remained in a Beijing hospital, was free to apply to travel to the U.S.
"If he wants to study abroad, he can apply through normal channels to the relevant departments in accordance with the law, just like any other Chinese citizen," the statement said.
The question now is whether the fragile deal will stick, or unravel like an earlier one that aimed to let Chen stay in China without being subject to further harassment.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was in Beijing attending economic talks, acknowledged Friday that this latest deal was a work in progress.
"We are encouraged by the progress we have seen today, but there is more work to do, so we will stay engaged as this moves forward," she said.
The State Department said an unnamed university had offered Chen a fellowship. Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University who has been advising Chen, said the activist has a standing offer to study there.
Still, the vagueness of the arrangement left some crucial questions open: Would Chen's wife and children be able to secure travel documents to accompany him? Would Chen be allowed to return to China?
And would the Chinese government facilitate his passport application in Beijing or require him, like other Chinese, to apply in his hometown. Chen lives in a village near Linyi, in Shandong province, where he had suffered abuse at the hands of local Communist Party officials.
"We want to see Chen walk out of the hospital and have full freedom to speak and live; otherwise, whatever the Chinese government says is just nonsense," said Wang Dan, a student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests who now lives near Los Angeles.
China experts say that part of the difficulty in resolving the crisis was a possible split in China's top leadership, which is in the midst of a transition with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao set to retire after a Communist Party congress in October.
"In the past, when we had a bilateral dust-up, our side would go to their top leadership and the problem would be resolved," said Christopher Johnson, a former CIA analyst on China now with the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. "But the events of the last few days have shown the many faces of the Chinese Communist Party: the pragmatists who wanted to make a deal, the hard-liners who didn't want to be seen as kowtowing to the United States."
The deal to study abroad could represent a face-saving measure for Beijing, which loathes to appear as caving in to U.S. or Western pressure. That hostility was displayed Friday with several Chinese newspapers carrying scathing editorials lashing out at Washington and Chen.
"Chen has become a tool and pawn being used by Western politicians to discredit China," is how the Beijing Daily put it.
"They've got to save face," explained Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. "U.S. readers should not take this seriously. It's just a show from Chinese politicians."
Chen, an iconic figure always photographed with sunglasses covering his sightless eyes, is a self-trained lawyer who helped villages fight against forced abortions and sterilizations ordered by overly zealous local officials in Shandong implementing China's one-child policy. After four years in prison on charges of "blocking traffic," he was confined to house arrest in September 2010, with barricades, wires and metal shutters erected to turn his home into a virtual prison.
Activists, journalists, intellectuals and celebrities trying to draw attention to his cause were prevented from visiting him and, in some cases, beaten and robbed by thugs in the process.
Chen escaped from his guards April 22, making his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where he took refuge. What followed was a confusing sequence of events that saw Chen apparently agree to leave U.S. protection after having secured Chinese guarantees of his safety.