BEIJING (Reuters) - Blind Chinese rights activist Chen Guangcheng said on Monday he expects Beijing to let him and his family travel to the United States without fresh troubles, but remains unsure how long it will take for official approval to come through.
Chen, 40, who took shelter in the U.S. embassy for six days after escaping house arrest, said he was still in hospital undergoing checks, which had identified an intestinal problem as enteritis, or chronic inflammation from an apparent infection.
“I can’t move around much but I‘m feeling better,” he said in a telephone call, sounding more relaxed than last week when he was at the centre of a diplomatic crisis between the two superpowers just as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visiting Beijing.
After leaving the embassy on Wednesday under a deal that foresaw him staying in China, Chen changed his mind and said he wanted to spend time in the United States to recuperate from the years of imprisonment and harassment that made him one of his country’s most recognized representatives of the “rights defence” movement campaigning for expanded civic freedoms.
China’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday that Chen could apply to study abroad, prompting an offer of a fellowship from New York University, though it remained unclear if China would cooperate in the dissident’s travel arrangements.
Chen said on Monday that Chinese authorities had no reason to try to block him and his wife and two children from going to the United States.
“I still don’t know when I’ll leave, but it shouldn’t be too long,” he said.
“The government openly promised to respect my rights as a citizen, and I expect them to live up to that promise,” he added. “If they did try to frustrate my plans, then they’d be slapping their own face, and I don’t think they will do that.”
Any more ructions with Beijing over Chen’s future could embolden U.S. critics of President Barack Obama’s China policies as the United States gears up for presidential elections in November. They had seized on Chen’s pleas for safety and his assertions, later retracted, that U.S. diplomats had left him isolated after escorting him from the embassy to the hospital.
Bo Fu, the president of ChinaAid, a Texas-based Christian advocacy group that has campaigned for Chen, said hospital staff had passed his request for a passport to Chinese officials.
“He said that for a disabled person, like a blind person, they don’t have to file papers, they just have to make an oral request for an application,” Fu said, describing a recent telephone conversation with Chen.
“I asked whether any friends can help him, he said he needs help but none of his friends can visit him.”
Vice President Joe Biden said on Sunday the United States was ready to give Chen a visa “right away” so that he could take up the fellowship at New York University.
Chen’s confinement, his escape and the furor that ensued have made him part of China’s dissident folklore: a blind prisoner outfoxing Communist Party controls in an echo of the man who stood down an army tank near Tiananmen Square in 1989.
In 2006, Chen was sentenced to more than four years in jail on charges - vehemently denied by his wife and lawyers - that he whipped up a crowd that disrupted traffic and damaged property.
He was formally released in 2010 but remained under stifling house arrest in his home village in Shandong province, which officials turned into a fortress of walls, security cameras and guards in plain clothes who kept Chen isolated.
The village of Dongshigu, where Chen’s mother and other relatives remain, was under lockdown on Friday. Reuters journalists who tried to visit were turned away by guards.
During his escape, Chen broke his right foot.
“I have a cast on it,” Chen told Hong Kong’s Cable News on Sunday. “No major problems came up in other medical tests, just minor problems. I‘m undergoing treatment now.”
Chen has said he remains worried about family members, who he fears face retribution from officials in Shandong who have accused them of aiding his escape.
Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Nick Macfie