University of Washington offers fellowship to blind China dissident

SEATTLE Wed May 9, 2012 6:58pm EDT

A handout photo from the U.S. Embassy Beijing Press office shows blind activist Chen Guangcheng (C) sitting in a wheelchair as he is accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke (R) at a hospital in Beijing, May 2, 2012. REUTERS/US Embassy Beijing Press Office/Handout

A handout photo from the U.S. Embassy Beijing Press office shows blind activist Chen Guangcheng (C) sitting in a wheelchair as he is accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke (R) at a hospital in Beijing, May 2, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/US Embassy Beijing Press Office/Handout

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SEATTLE (Reuters) - The University of Washington has offered a fellowship to blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who has said that he wants to study in the United States following his dramatic escape from house arrest.

The move follows a similar invitation extended by New York University as Chen waits for approval to travel to the United States under a deal struck between the Obama administration and Beijing.

The 40-year-old activist took refuge in the U.S. embassy for six days after fleeing house arrest in Shandong, prompting fears that a diplomatic standoff over his fate could sour relations between the United States and China.

He is now hospitalized for a broken foot and other ailments stemming from his 19 months of confinement and daring escape, and says he wants to take his family abroad for their safety and to continue his studies.

China's Foreign Ministry has said Chen can apply to study abroad, but it was not clear how soon Beijing would let him leave.

The University of Washington, in a letter signed by president Michael Young and provost Ana Mari Cauce, invited Chen to come to the Seattle-based institution to study either law or international relations.

"The University of Washington has a strong history and reputation in China Studies, with both a China Studies program and a China Law Center," Young and Cauce said in the letter, billing its China Studies program as "one of the oldest and most prestigious" in the country.

"We have no doubts that we could provide you with a strong collegial and academic environment where you could be involved in taking, and possibly teaching, classes as well as conducting other scholarship," the letter said, adding: "It would be our honor for you to join the University of Washington community."

Administrators at the university contacted Gary Locke, the U.S. Ambassador to China and a former Washington state governor, to get their invitation to Chen, but yet to receive a reply, university spokesman Norm Arkans said.

Locke's Washington ties helped the university get the message through, he said, but the connection wasn't a factor in the state-supported school extending its fellowship offer to Chen.

Chen, a self-taught legal activist, came to national fame for campaigning for farmers and disabled citizens, and exposing a campaign of forced abortions in Linyi, Shandong, where officials were under pressure to meet family planning goals.

Arkans said the University of Washington was inspired to make the offer by NYU's similar announcement, saying that Chen might prefer multiple options despite his existing relationship with NYU law professor Jerome Cohen.

"We think he would be a real asset here," Arkans said. "There are a lot of folks who would be eager to have him here in residence and have him be able to do seminars and research and perhaps have him do some teaching."

(Writing and additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Eric Walsh; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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