MIDLAND, Texas (Reuters) - Only a few hours after blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng left his sanctuary in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and the United States’ declared it had won concessions over his future from the Chinese government, a soft-spoken 44-year-old West Texas pastor was questioning the official version of events.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Chen, who had escaped house arrest in a village in Shandong province before making his way to the Chinese capital last week, had “a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment” inside China. Chinese state media said he had left the embassy “of his own volition.”
Pastor Bob Fu, though, issued a statement quickly challenging the official story. It said “relevant reports show unfortunately the US side ‘has abandoned Mr Chen,’” and that he had reluctantly left the embassy because of threats to his family by the Chinese government.
Soon, Chen was confirming Fu’s concerns in a number of interviews with Western media organizations. Chen told Reuters in a phone interview from a Beijing hospital that he wants to leave for the United States rather than stay in China because his safety cannot be assured under the deal.
For Fu, who said he knew about the deal 15 hours in advance, it wasn’t the first time in the past week that he has been one of the few sources of information on what has been happening to Chen, whose case has threatened to badly damage relations between the United States and China.
Operating in the Bible-belt oil town of Midland from a modest white-washed house perched along a non-descript roadway, just down the road from a firearms shop, Fu and his religious and human rights group ChinaAid Association Inc has campaigned for years on behalf of Chen and other Chinese dissidents.
Funded by philanthropists from the oil and gas industry and by churches in Midland, which is best-known as former President George W. Bush’s childhood hometown, Fu has traveled the world to human rights conferences to advocate for Chen’s release from prison and then from house arrest.
On Thursday, he will be a witness in a hearing on Chen’s case being held by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a panel that monitors human rights and the rule of law in China. “He has people inside of China who provide us with information that has been amazingly accurate,” said Republican Representative Chris Smith, who is the commission’s chairman.
Fu’s apparent knowledge of the events surrounding Chen’s escape and arrival at the U.S. Embassy, has prompted many journalists to go to him for information when both the U.S. and Chinese governments were tight-lipped. It is unclear how accurate all of that information has been given the lack of official clarity about the discussions between the two governments.
Fu says he has been in touch with some of the people who helped Chen get to Beijing and on Wednesday he said that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Mike Posner, who is traveling with Clinton in China, had called to update him on Chen’s situation.
Chen and Fu’s lives have had some similar twists and turns. They are both from Shandong province in eastern China and their wives are from the same village of Linyi.
Fu has been involved in political activism since his days at Liaocheng University in Shandong, and he joined the Tiananmen protests in 1989 that ended in a bloody crackdown on students and other protesters by the Chinese government. Fu and his wife, Heidi Cai, were arrested in 1996 for holding underground worship services, in direct violation of rules that all churches must register with the Chinese state.
After discovering that Heidi was pregnant, Fu and his wife fled Beijing and hid in the homes of Christians in the countryside to escape what he feared was the possibility that Chinese officials would force her to have an abortion.
At that time, Chinese women were technically required to get permission from the state to become pregnant - under the nation’s “one-child” policy. The policy restricting Chinese to having only one child is applied with widely varying degrees of severity across China and has been relaxed in many areas.
Fu and his wife escaped China through Hong Kong in 1997 just days before control of the territory was handed back to China from the United Kingdom.
Fu’s experiences have made him a powerful advocate for those who say they have been victimized by Chinese authorities.
“My prison experience has a direct connection,” Fu told Reuters in an interview in a courtyard at ChinaAid’s office in Midland. “When I hear of someone being imprisoned or tortured or in a labor camp, I immediately can connect with them.”
Fu said he started ChinaAid in his garage in 2002 while attending Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He moved to Midland in 2004 after meeting a group of ministers from the Texas town when he was in Washington, D.C., lobbying over oppression in Sudan.
To build support, Fu brought Chinese dissidents to tell their stories to local church audiences.
“Midland got a feel for getting involved on a wider playing field,” said Tom Vermillion, associate pastor at Mid-Cities Community Church in Midland. “The folks that came here seeking political asylum really won everybody’s hearts,” he added. “They were vulnerable, they had been tortured.”
In its 2010 tax filing, the most recent one available, ChinaAid describes its mission as collecting donations and distributing them to China to pay for legal representation for persecuted Christians.
ChinaAid also provides resources and training for Chinese religious leaders, and supports families of imprisoned Chinese Christians, many of whom are forced to reimburse Chinese officials for the cost of relatives’ imprisonment.
In its filing, ChinaAid said it received $1.28 million in contributions and grants in 2010, with other revenue of $84,741. It employed 15 people in 2010, with an estimated 40 volunteers, the filing shows.
Oil prices above $100 a barrel have been a boon to Midland, as evidenced by hundreds of oil pump jacks that dominate the town’s flat, dusty horizons.
Fu said ChinaAid is backed largely by donors from the community in and around Midland. “We receive much, much less support from the Chinese community” in the United States, Fu said. “Most of the big donors are pretty much from this area.”
Located squarely in an area where churches with conservative social agendas hold sway, ChinaAid’s board members and supporters identify with Fu’s hatred of forced abortions and sterilizations that officials in some areas of China impose to enforce the one-child policy.
The Chen case resonates here for the same reasons. Blind since childhood, the rural-born Chen taught himself law and drew international attention in 2005 after accusing officials of forcing women to undergo abortions and sterilizations.
“The one-child policy does greatly concern us,” said Patrick Payton, senior pastor at Stonegate Fellowship Church and a close friend of Fu’s who has traveled with him to Washington to meet with lawmakers and diplomats. “Whether it’s birth issues or free speech issues, it greatly concerns us.”
But board members and local church supporters, said that ChinaAid isn’t dominated by the abortion issue.
Fu estimated that about 10 percent of its supporters were drawn to ChinaAid because of anti-abortion issues, while the rest were motivated by broader human rights concerns.
“That’s the beauty of this community - they are not a bunch of crazy proselytizers,” Fu said.
Scott McGraw, a petroleum engineer who founded an oil company called Legacy Reserves and who is a self-described philanthropist, said he originally sought to support outreach to Muslim countries, but kept running into Fu at local events and is now a ChinaAid board member and one of its major funders.
“What really resonates with me more is freedom of religion,” he said. “Yes, a forced abortion is a horrible thing. But I’m not an anti-abortion campaigner. I’m more into religious freedom.”
Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by Martin Howell and Eric Beech