Chen Guangcheng, 40, reportedly escaped from house arrest last week and headed straight for sanctuary with the Americans. A fellow human rights campaigner and friend, Hu Jia, told London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper: ‘As far as I know, he is in the US embassy, the safest place in China.’ Mr Hu told the paper that he didn’t know whether the lawyer would be applying for asylum in the US, as ‘I don’t know if he still wants to stay in China’.
The US authorities refused to comment on the reports, apart from saying they had ‘always had concerns’ about Mr Chen’s position.
Over the last five years, global law firms have been tripping over themselves to get a slice of the booming Chinese economy. Practices from the UK and US have led the way, but even those from continental Europe, most notably France and Italy, have also set up shop in Beijing and Shanghai.
They had been encouraged by an apparently liberalising approach to international business from the country’s communist leadership. However, as the party moves towards its once-in-a-generation hierarchy change, the mood in Beijing has changed. Only a few weeks ago, all Chinese lawyers – including those working for foreign law firms – have been pressed to sign loyalty oaths to the Communist Party.
According to Atlantic magazine in the US, the Chinese authorities have been so rattled by Mr Chen’s recent moves that they immediately clamped down on discussion about him on the country’s internet sites. ‘When rumours spread on Sunday that he had boarded United Airlines flight 898 from Beijing to Washington,’ reports the magazine, ‘state censors almost immediately blocked Weibo users from sending any messages with the word “UA898”.’ It goes on to report that the words ‘blind man’ were also blocked on line.