The U.S. and China are locked in tense negotiations over the fate of Chen Guangcheng, a blind dissident who made a bold escape from house arrest and reportedly sought refuge in the U.S. embassy. The drama comes at a sensitive moment — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are traveling to China this week for potentially critical strategic and economic talks. Will tensions over a single dissident disrupt U.S. relations with Beijing? Here, six key questions:
Who is Chen Guangcheng?
Chen is a blind Chinese civil rights activist, a self-schooled legal advocate who exposed abuses, including forced abortions, under China's one-child policy. As a result, he and his wife, Yuan Weijing, faced harassment from local authorities, and Chen was thrown in jail for several years. He was released in 2010 but kept under house arrest, where he and his wife endured beatings and constant surveillance.
Why is Chen so important?
Chen has won widespread support among dissidents all over China, Wang Songlian of the Chinese Human Rights Defenders Network tells Britain's Guardian. "It is good versus evil: A grassroots disabled man being treated really badly for seeking justice on behalf of others. It is one man against the state machinery and that symbolism is very important."
Where was Chen kept under house arrest?
In a "dilapidated house in China's rural Shandong province," according to Reuters. He was monitored by several guards, who had grown used to his pattern of staying inside for days. Sometimes, they rarely saw him.
How did he escape?
At first, Chen planned to tunnel his way to freedom, but that proved unrealistic. So he reportedly fooled guards into thinking he was sick by lying in bed. Then, judging the moment right, he scaled a wall, and was driven away by supporters. Chen subsequently made his way to Beijing, where he is believed to have found refuge in the U.S. embassy.
What is the U.S. risking to protect Chen?
Quite a lot. The Obama administration is trying to get China to help rein in the nuclear programs of both North Korea and Iran, and resolve the crisis in Syria. And some economists worry that anything that strains ties between the two powerhouses could add a stumbling block to the global economic recovery.
What will happen to Chen now?
U.S. and Chinese officials are reportedly working on a deal to get Chen asylum in the U.S., according to Bob Fu of the Texas-based rights group ChinaAid. Both sides are "eager to solve the issue," Fu, a former teacher at a Community Party academy in Beijing, tells The Associated Press, so they'll try to wrap up the negotiations before Clinton's two-day visit begins Thursday. Don't be so sure, says John Lee at TIME. China's position is "precarious." If Chen is allowed to leave, Beijing would view that "dangerous concession" as a tacit encouragement for other dissidents to try and escape. As the U.S. seeks to flex its muscles in the region, China won't give in easily on this issue.