NEW YORK Blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng, whose escape from house arrest sparked a diplomatic crisis between Beijing and Washington, accepted an invitation on Friday to visit Taiwan, underscoring his drive to ensure his influence as a human rights campaigner will continue abroad.
Taiwan legislator Lin Chia-lung from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) visited Chen at New York University, where he is studying law, to invite him to visit Taiwan and to address the island's parliament.
"He very happily accepted our invitation and said the sooner he can come, the better," Lin said, speaking after the meeting. Chen declined to speak to media but did not cite a reason.
On Tuesday, Chen said he would "most likely" accept an invitation to visit Taiwan.
"I think I will," said Chen earlier this week. "Whoever invites me, I will accept."
Chen would bring his family to Taiwan before next summer to meet human rights workers, lawyers and legislators and possibly speak before Taiwan's legislative body, Lin said.
After a quiet three-month period, a trip to Taiwan will catapult Chen back into the limelight. Being abroad hasn't cooled his campaign for human rights in China, analysts say.
"I think... he's trying to find a way ... to use his prominence currently to make an effective influence in China even when he's not there," said Songlian Wang, a researcher for rights group Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
One of China's most prominent dissidents, Hu Jia, a close friend of Chen's, told Reuters that Chen has expressed concern on how he can maintain his influence while abroad.
"The point of maintaining his influence is for his future work and not because of his personal fame," said Hu, who was released from jail last year after serving 3.5 years for "inciting subversion of state power."
Hu said Chen wants to ensure everything he says puts pressure on the Chinese government, which is one of the reasons Chen is writing a book.
Before Chen left China in June, he had told friends he was determined to stay. Many Chinese dissidents before him who had left play a marginal role in China's current rights movement and had warned Chen could be neutralized once in New York.
Without the Internet, the voices of the old-time dissidents were barely heard. For Chen, who uses Skype and email with his wife's help, that will be different.
"Chen Guangcheng remains deeply involved and deeply engaged in the issues which he was concerned about ... when he was in China," said Phelim Kine, New York-based deputy director for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, noting that Chen has been widening his network of contacts inside and outside China.
"TODAY'S TAIWAN IS TOMORROW'S CHINA"
Lin said Chen's primary goal in taking the trip is learning about Taiwan's democratic system. Taiwan transitioned from one-party rule to a multiparty democracy from the mid-1980s.
"The first thing (Chen) said was, 'Today's Taiwan is tomorrow's China. China must follow the democratic path that Taiwan took,'" Lin said, recounting his conversation with Chen.
The trip could complicate relations between Taiwan and China, which considers the island a breakaway province to be unified with the mainland eventually, and by force if necessary.
Taiwan, proudly democratic, regularly plays host to people China despises, including exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. It is also home to two leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests who escaped China: Wang Dan and Wu'er Kaixi.
In comments emailed to Reuters, Wang said speaking from Taiwan would help Chen reach Chinese citizens.
"China and Taiwan are now close. Anything (Chen) says in Taiwan, mainlanders will hear," Wang said, noting that comments made in the United States will be only in the English-language media, which most mainlanders won't have access to.
Chen's invitation comes from the DPP, which has not endeared itself to China with its stance asserting the island's sovereignty. The ruling Nationalist Party's President Ma Ying-jeou, by contrast, has hugely improved relations with Beijing in recent years with a series of landmark economic deals.
John Kamm, executive director of the Duihua Foundation, which promotes prisoners' rights in China, said he did not think Chen's visit to Taiwan would necessarily infuriate Beijing.
"I think they are going to basically ignore it, unless he goes over there and says a bunch of stuff that is going to unnerve them," Kamm said.
The Chinese government has gone silent on the subject of Chen, who in early August met with U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers to discuss human rights abuses in China.
However Chen has turned down repeated requests to testify in Washington, Kamm said, a sign Chen does not want to go too far.
"If he addresses the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan's parliament), he is going to choose his words very carefully, and might end up urging closer ties with China," Kamm said.
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Jonathan Standing in Taipei and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)