Deal for Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng saves face for US and China

Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest two weeks ago Photo: BH/KR

So a face-saving deal has been done.

Chen Guangcheng timed his escape from house arrest in rural eastern China perfectly. He made it to Beijing and was given sanctuary in the US Embassy days before Hillary Clinton arrived for annual US/China talks.

She had repeatedly called for his release, highlighting his case as an example of China's human rights abuses. This evening in Beijing, she was able to announce that he'll soon be in the land of the free, allowed to study in a US university.

It's taken almost two weeks of difficult and dramatic diplomatic twists and turns.

First, denials that Chen was inside the Embassy, then days of secret talks to carve out a deal to secure his freedom in China. He was then taken to a hospital to be treated for leg fractures suffered during his escape. Then he changed his mind, fearing more persecution, asking to be allowed exile in the States.

It looked as though the agreement between Washington and Beijing over his fate had fallen apart.

Hillary Clinton is due to leave tomorrow and yesterday it seemed Chen would be stuck, under guard, in the hospital which was rapidly turning into a new prison. US diplomats were stopped from seeing him, one of his lawyers detained.

Chen at the US embassy with assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell Credit: Reuters

It was the Chinese who came up with the offer to allow him to leave, enabling him to study in the States.

It was eagerly welcomed by the Clinton team facing criticism over its handling of the case. Chen had been in the embassy then allowed back into the hands of Chinese security police, Mitt Romney calling that a "dark day for freedom".

China's leaders will be glad to get rid of Chen. His case was a source of criticism in the West.

In the States he'll be less able to raise the issues of forced abortions, forced sterilisation and rights for farmers that he championed.

Chen campaigned against f forced abortions and forced sterilisation in China Credit: BH/JB

State media is calling him a "tool for American politicians to blacken China's name" and in one state newspaper the US Ambassador has been branded a "Starbucks sipping troublemaker".

To what extent Chen's case has set a precedent remains to be seen. Are we going to see a stream of activists seeking sanctuary in the US Embassy? The US assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell has said "don't expect it to happen again".

Chen has spent almost seven years in jail and illegal detention. Freedom in the United States is now in sight.