By Michelle Bauman
Amid news of a possible opportunity for pro-life activist Chen Guangcheng to leave China and come to the U.S., concerns are being raised about the welfare of his friends and extended family.
The U.S. State Department announced on the morning of May 4 that “Chen has been offered a fellowship from an American university, where he can be accompanied by his wife and two children.”
The Chinese government stated that Chen has the same right to travel as any other citizen and can apply to study at a foreign college.
According to the U.S. State Department, China “has indicated that it will accept Mr. Chen’s applications for appropriate travel documents.”
The U.S. government expects that these applications will be processed quickly and pledged that it would then give “priority attention” to visa requests for Chen and his immediate family.
A self-taught lawyer who has been blind since he was young, Chen has spent several years in prison and house arrest after speaking out strongly against China’s one-child policy and the brutal forced abortions and sterilizations that are often used to implement it.
He escaped house arrest on April 22 and was transported to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. After several days of discussions, he agreed to leave the embassy on May 2 and be taken to a local hospital. Once there, however, he began telling media outlets that he was scared for the safety of his family and wanted to leave the country.
The announcement that Chen may be able to come to the United States to study has drawn both cautious praise and concern from human rights advocates, who applaud the move but say that it fails to account for the plight of Chen’s extended family and friends, who are also in danger.
Human rights group Amnesty International said that the pledge “seems empty” given that the Chinese government has been “targeting” Chen’s family and friends.
“The US and other governments must demand that the Chinese government’s retaliation against Chen’s wider family and network of supporters stops now,” said Catherine Baber, the group’s Asia-Pacific deputy director.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who helped draw attention to Chen’s situation by organizing a May 3 emergency hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, voiced similar concerns in an interview with MSNBC.
He called for the government and media to keep their focus on those individuals who may be subject to Chinese aggression “as soon as the lights go out.”
Testifying via phone at the emergency hearing, Chen said that his biggest concern is the safety of his brother and elderly mother, whose condition he has not been able to confirm.
Reports have indicated that his brother is currently in police custody and his elderly mother may also have been detained, along with his cousin and sister-in-law.
In addition, human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong was reportedly beaten for trying to visit Chen at the hospital.
A witness at the hearing said that she had previously spoken to Chen’s nephew who was “on the run” after slashing Chinese officials with a knife. He was concerned because a black car was following him, she said, and he later tried to surrender himself to Chinese authorities. His current status is not clear.
At a May 3 press conference, Reggie Littlejohn, who runs an international coalition to oppose forced abortion in China, publicized the plight of He Peirong, who played a key role in helping Chen escape.
Littlejohn said that she had been talking with He – known by her screen name “Pearl” – via Skype on the night when the Chinese discovered that Chen was missing. She said that He was alone and scared. They talked on an off throughout the night, until He suddenly stopped answering.
She “has not been heard from since,” Littlejohn said, adding that she was “very concerned that she is being tortured” by the Chinese government to get information on the other people involved in Chen’s escape.
On May 4, news broke that He had been released from custody and was safely home. In an interview with the BBC, she said that she had been confined to a hotel room, but was no longer worried when the story became public.
While she is “relieved and delighted” that He has been released, Littlejohn has emphasized that she must be included in whatever deal is struck to ensure the safety of Chen and his family.