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Photo Credit: Albert Lee | Daily Texan Staff

The future of democracy might rest on the shoulders of courageous student protesters in Hong Kong. Thousands of young men and women on the island have taken to the streets to stall Chinese efforts at rigging local elections. Hong Kong enjoys greater political freedoms than any other part of China, and Beijing now wants to end that. If the Chinese leadership succeeds, this will have a chilling effect far beyond the mainland of Asia. Democratic activists and their government repressors in Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and even Russia are watching.

The British Empire wrested Hong Kong from the Chinese Emperor in 1842 as a forced indemnity following the First Opium War. The British coerced the Chinese into importing opium, and they seized a key trading post off the southern coast of the mainland. During the next 155 years Hong Kong became a center for British trade, a magnet for wealth and a creative space for free thinkers who merged British and Chinese language and culture. Hong Kong was part of London’s imperial system, but it also emerged as a thriving island of capitalism and democracy. 

The Chinese government regained control over Hong Kong in 1997, as part of a treaty negotiated with Britain to rescind the imperialist imposition from the prior century. Beijing promised to protect the unique culture of Hong Kong, including its free market system and its freedom of speech. Citizens of Hong Kong embraced a future with China, but they expected the right to elect local leaders who would guard their autonomy from the suffocating dominance of the Chinese Communist Party.

Many observers questioned whether this agreement could ever work. How long would Beijing allow an island of freedom to operate within a larger political system that restricted speech and political choice? Would Chinese leaders feel compelled to change Hong Kong, fearful that otherwise it might change the mainland? 

Optimists, myself included, hoped that Hong Kong would become a beachhead for democratic change, spreading throughout China. In 1989, student protests for greater freedom in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and other urban areas brought this hope close to reality. We now know that democracy activists were tantalizingly close to convincing Chinese Communist Party leaders to undertake the kinds of democratic reforms they have never allowed. Frightened by what this would mean for their power, China’s most elite figures chose military repression in place of reform, ordering what became a bloody massacre of students. The crackdown carried to Hong Kong, but Beijing’s leaders were careful not to alienate foreign countries, including the United States, by closing off all democracy on the island. 

In the last few months, China has stepped beyond these limits. Beijing will now require that any candidate for chief executive of Hong Kong have prior approval on the mainland. This restriction of political choice for island residents —  a clear violation of local democratic institutions — is part of a broader campaign to give the Chinese Communist Party a stronger hold over communications, trade and all forms of political opinion. Chinese leader Xi Jinping wants to stamp out any pressure for reforming his autocratic government. He hopes to make Hong Kong’s “special administrative region” into another cowering province under the dominance of the Communist Party. 

This is more than just a political struggle. It is a conflict that will determine the possibilities for democracy throughout Asia, in the shadow of a stronger and wealthier China. The students who are protesting want to be loyal to China and to their hopes for democracy. They are unwilling to give up their freedoms and their choice of leaders. They want to determine their own future, without the uncompromising dominance over professional opportunities and political authority that the Community Party wields on the mainland. 

The United States and Europe have been much too silent about events in Hong Kong. We are watching with sympathy, but doing little else. Our passivity reflects fatigue with failed democratic movements, especially the Arab Spring, and preoccupation with crises in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and other dangerous parts of the world. The democratic struggle in Hong Kong seems distant from our daily concerns.

The future of democracy in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia will, however, affect our lives more than almost anything else. If the most populous continent gives up on democracy, it is unlikely to survive in other parts of the globe. If the Chinese government succeeds in extending its authoritarian control over the entire region, then the trade and access that Americans take for granted will become much less assured. Most important, the denial of democracy in Hong Kong will be yet another defeat for the free hopes of young entrepreneurs against the repressive actions of old dictators. 

Americans, especially those on college campuses, must speak up in support of the Hong Kong students. We are part of their struggle for a more democratic, just and peaceful world. We can help them by raising our voices, and inspiring others to do the same.  We can help them by showing that we care.

Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History. 

BEIJING — People refused to venture outdoors and buildings disappeared into Beijing’s murky skyline on Sunday as the air quality in China’s notoriously polluted capital went off the index.

The Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center said on its website that the density of PM2.5 particulates had surpassed 700 micrograms per cubic meter in many parts of the city. The World Health Organization considers a safe daily level to be 25 micrograms per cubic meter.

PM2.5 are tiny particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in size, or about 1/30th the average width of a human hair. They can penetrate deep into the lungs, so measuring them is considered a more accurate reflection of air quality than other methods.

Olympian and former Longhorn Trey Hardee demonstrates a discus throw to Formula 1 driver Mark Webber at Mike Myers stadium.  

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

Coming within inches of your greatest dream only to see it slip away can lead someone to dark and lonely places. Fortunately Trey Hardee, a decathlete and Texas alumnus, took his crushing fourth-place finish in the decathlon during the 2008 Olympics as a source of inspiration for the future.

Born in 1984 in Birmingham, Ala., Hardee has been no stranger to fighting through adversity. In 2002 he enrolled at Mississippi State on a pole vault scholarship. It was there that coaches noticed Hardee’s 6-foot-5 frame, strength and speed — attributes needed to be a decathlete. In 2004 Mississippi State dropped its indoor track team, shaking Hardee’s career and forcing him to transfer.

“There was a whole tornado of reasons why I ended up in Austin,” Hardee said Wednesday at Mike A. Myers Stadium. “I was really happy at Mississippi State. I loved it there. [I] had a lot of friends there, loved my coaches. One of my coaches decided to leave, and there was a little uncertainty about what would happen. And then they dropped the men’s indoor program, so there were just a lot of things that led to me wanting to take a look elsewhere to see what else was out there. I took one trip to Texas, and that was all it took.”

Hardee began his career at Texas in barn-burning fashion. In 2005 he finished third in the decathlon at the NCAA Championships, but 2006 brought more hardships for Hardee.

“I was really upset in 2006 when I didn’t win the national championship for Texas. That was a big one,” Hardee said. “That was well within my control, but I didn’t have experience on how to handle it. That one still stands out in my mind.”

Even through the disappointment of 2006, Hardee went on to qualify for the U.S. men’s national team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After staying in contention for a medal through nearly the entire competition, it was his “no-height” score in the pole vault — the event Hardee was originally awarded a scholarship for — that cost him a medal and landed him in fourth place before he dropped out.

“Beijing was tough,” Hardee said. “It sucked and it was a personal setback, but I was really blessed to have the coaches that I have and the teammates that I have. It was tough, but I grew from it.”

The season after the Beijing debacle, Hardee went on to win his first world title and would later be awarded the Jim Thorpe All-Around Award by the United States Sports Academy. Hardee continued to have success until he tried his luck at the London Olympics this past summer.

“In London I was kind of playing with house money,” Hardee said. “I was worried about the Tommy John surgery I’d had the September before, and I was just trying to be as positive as I could. Just making the team and being able to be there considering the circumstances in my elbow was the goal for the year. We felt like if we made it we could go to London and maybe have a chance.”

Hardee proved to have more than just a chance in London, winning the silver medal behind fellow American Ashton Eaton, who took the gold. Hardee finally won the elusive Olympic medal he was so close to capturing in Beijing.

“I was shocked, honored and blessed,” Hardee said. “I really don’t think I’ve processed it yet.”  

Printed on November 16, 2012 as: Olympic decathlete inspires with story

Sanya Richards-Ross speaks to the Longhorn Network about her upcoming trip to the 2012 London Summer Olympics.

Photo Credit: Marisa Vasquez | Daily Texan Staff

When it comes to the Olympics, Sanya Richards-Ross knows exactly what to do — after all, her trip to London in two weeks will be her third time competing in the Olympic Games. But with all her accomplishments and hardware, Richards-Ross has yet to fulfill one dream that she has had since the beginning, bringing home an individual Olympic gold medal.

“The individual gold is the reason I’ve stayed in this sport,” Richards-Ross said. “To be able to have an individual gold medal, I don’t know if I will be able to describe it, it will be my longtime dream come true. It will be the ultimate for me for what I’ve been working on for 20 years now since I was seven.”

In London, Richards-Ross will compete individually in the 200-meter and 400-meter events. She also qualified to participate in the 4x400 meter relay.

In 2004, at her first Olympic Games in Athens, Richards-Ross came away with her first Olympic medal — a gold medal in the 4x400 meter relay. She then she came home from the 2008 Beijing Olympics with two medals around her neck – one team gold medal in the 4x400 meter relay and a bronze medal in the 400-meter individual event.

Although she has been the favorite in the 400-meter dash since the 2004 Olympic Games, unfortunate circumstances have prevented her from claiming individual gold.

Richards-Ross failed to qualify for the 400-meter dash in 2004, coming in fourth at the Olympic trials due to illness. In 2008, Richards-Ross went to Beijing as the fastest finals qualifier and once again the favorite, but after coming out of the starting blocks too fast, took third.

“After 2008, I was so disappointed because I thought it was a huge missed opportunity,” Richards-Ross said. “Though I’ve had some tough times with injury and illness, the one thing that kept me going was that I wanted to get back to this point. To be able to have an individual gold medal.”

Now she’s back and is once again the one to watch for in women’s track and field. However, she’s added one more thing to her resume. After qualifying for the 400-meter dash with a first place finish, Richards-Ross decided to attempt the 200-meter dash. After three days of preparation, she qualified for the 200-meter dash with a third place finish.

“When the season started, I was focused on the 400,” Richards-Ross said. “Once that was over, I had about three days to recover … and it turned out to be a phenomenal race. It was really tough to make the team in the 200. I’m still solely focused on the 400, the 200 is icing on the cake.”

With all the knowledge she has gained from her past experiences, Richards-Ross is approaching the trip to London with a sense of calm and increased patience — she plans to enjoy herself. She believes that becoming too tense in the past has limited her accomplishments.

“I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to go out there and perform at a very high level … This year I worked very hard to stay disciplined,” she said of her shortcomings in Beijing. “I just feel so excited! I feel that I have so many great experiences that I can pull from and so I really hope to go out there an make this my best one ever.”

She has not decided what she will do after London. Thanks to her recent good health and success, a trip to the 2016 games is not unobtainable.

“I am kind of on the fence about it,” Richards-Ross said. “A couple of years ago I probably would have thought [the 2012 Olympics] would be my last … but the way I am feeling now, I feel that I could potentially do another one. It all depends but I am not going in thinking that, it would be too much pressure. We will see where the future takes me.”

Brendan Hansen kneels as he celebrates his win in the men's 100-meter breaststroke final at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Although the 2012 United States Olympic Trials are still in full swing, many Longhorns have already qualified to make the trip to London in three different sports.

In diving, former Longhorn Troy Dumais qualified for his fourth Olympic Games last week in Federal Way, Washington in two events. Dumais and his partner Kristian Ipsen from Stanford took first in the men’s 3-meter synchronized springboard event to qualify. On the last day of the diving trials, Dumais finished second in the individual 3-meter springboard to earn his spot on Team USA.

In Eugene, Ore. at the track and field trials, Sanya Richards-Ross has qualified for her third Olympic Games in two events, the 200- and 400-meter races. This is the first time in her career that she has qualified for two different events. Richards-Ross won gold in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008 for her part in the 4x400 meter relay. She also took home bronze in Beijing in the 400-meter individual event.

Richards-Ross will be joined in London by Trey Hardee in the decathlon and Michelle Carter in shot put. This will be Hardee’s second trip to the Olympics after finishing fourth in the decathlon in 2008. Carter has also qualified for her second career Olympics. She finished fifteenth in Beijing in shot put.

Marquise Goodwin, a starter on the Longhorns’ football team, finished first place in the men’s long jump event with a jump of 8.33 meters, a personal best to qualify for the Olympic team.

Several Longhorns have already qualified for Team USA in the pool, with several more attempting to make the team by the time trials end on July 2.

Former Longhorn Ricky Berens qualified for his second Olympics in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle relays. At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Berens won gold in the 800-meter freestyle relay along with Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Peter Vanderkaay. Berens swam the third leg for the record-setting team. Berens came in third in his final heat on the 200-meter freestyle, missing the qualifying mark by just 0.81 seconds.

Brendan Hansen qualified for the 100-meter breaststroke with a second-place finish ahead of Longhorn Aquatics teammate Eric Shanteau, who also qualified for the Olympics. This will be Hansen’s second trip to the Summer Games. Hansen has four medals to his name, including a gold for his participation on the 800-meter freestyle relay with Berens.

Kathleen Hersey, who competed for the Longhorns for two years before turning professional with Longhorn Aquatics, placed second in the 200-meter butterfly to qualify for her second Olympic Games. Hersey narrowly missed qualifying in the 100-meter butterfly event by finishing in third place.

Jimmy Feigen is the new Olympian on the swim team for the Longhorns. Feigen qualified for the relay team with a fourth-place finish in the 100-meter freestyle event and will be attempting to qualify for 50-meter race as well.

Jimmy Feigen is the one to watch in Omaha this week. As one of the fastest freestyle sprinters in the world, Feigen is a favorite to earn a trip to London during this week’s U.S. Olympic trials.

This past season Feigen established himself as a premier swimmer after coming home from the 2012 NCAA Championships with two individual championships and a first place relay finish. After three years of finishing in the top five, Feigen finally finished first in the 50-yard freestyle with a time of 19.01 seconds and first in the 100-yard freestyle with a time of 41.95 seconds.

With two individual crowns on his resume, Feigen is aiming for something a little bit bigger ­— a spot in London to compete against the best from around the world and a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream.

“Jimmy is probably one of the most talented swimmers in USA swimming right now. He has a great stroke and great talent,” said Ricky Berens, former Longhorn teammate. “He hates to lose. He’s very focused and internally motivated. He’s a huge asset for UT and hopefully will be at the Olympics for Team USA.”

Feigen’s solid senior season will be a huge advantage as he competes in Omaha. As a freshman in 2008, Feigen took a shot at a trip to Beijing, but was not able to make it out of prelims in his two events. He finished 28th in the 50-yard and 40th in the 100-yard freestyle events that year.

“I knew that 2008 wasn’t going to be my year, but I’ve been looking forward to 2012 my whole life,” Feigen said.

Feigen will compete for a chance to represent the United States in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle events in addition to a possible relay spot. The Olympic races are considered long course races, which are done in meters, as opposed to the short course races, done in yards, seen at the NCAA Championships.

This won’t be the first time that Feigen has competed for the United States. He finished second in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle events at the 2011 ConocoPhillips National Championships. At the 2011 World University Games in China, Feigen took home golds in the 100-yard freestyle and the 400-yard freestyle relay. He currently holds a spot on the U.S. National Team.

“You can never turn down an opportunity to put on a USA cap and represent America,” Feigen said of competing for the United States. “It meant a lot to wear the USA cap. It was absolutely fantastic. It was a really humbling experience, to say the least, but also a totally fulfilling and wonderful experience.”

Feigen also holds the American record in the 200-yard and 400-yard freestyle relay and the 200-yard medley relay, and he’s a 17-time All-American.

At Texas, Feigen holds five school records in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle, 200- and 400-yard freestyle relays, and 200-yard medley relay. Feigen was on the 2010 Longhorn squad that were crowned NCAA Champions.

Feigen’s major competition in the pool this week includes former University of California Golden Bear Nathan Adrian. In addition to also having individual NCAA championships in both the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events, Adrian currently holds the U.S. record for both freestyle event lengths. He will be competing for his second trip to the Olympics and another medal to go with his 400-meter relay gold from Beijing.

But Feigen won’t let Adrian, or anyone else, get in the way.

Earlier this summer, Feigen beat one of the best swimmers in American history, Michael Phelps, at the Longhorn Aquatics Elite Invite. Feigen won the 100-meter freestyle event with a time of 48.63, a personal best, while Phelps clocked in at 49.05.

“I live for the pressure and will embrace it come trials,” Feigen said. “[I] will move the earth to accomplish my dreams.”

BEIJING — The blind Chinese dissident who boldly fled house arrest and placed himself under the wing of U.S. diplomats balked Wednesday at a deal delicately worked out between the two countries to let him live freely in China, saying he now fears for his family’s safety unless they are all spirited abroad.

After six days holed up in the U.S. Embassy, as senior officials in Beijing and Washington tussled over his fate, Chen Guangcheng left the compound’s protective confines Wednesday for a nearby hospital for treatment of a leg injury suffered in his escape. A shaken Chen told The Associated Press from his hospital room that Chinese authorities had warned he would lose his opportunity to be reunited with his family if he stayed longer in the embassy.

U.S. officials verified that account. But they adamantly denied his contention that one American diplomat had warned him of a threat from the Chinese that his wife would be beaten to death if he did not get out of the embassy.

“I think we’d like to rest in a place outside of China,” Chen told the AP, appealing again for help from Washington. “Help my family and me leave safely.”

Only hours earlier, U.S. officials said they had extracted from the Chinese government a promise that Chen would join his family and be allowed to start a new life in a university town in China, safe from the rural authorities who had abusively held him in prison and house arrest for nearly seven years.

That announcement had been timed to clear up the matter before strategic and economic meetings start Thursday between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts — and to show the U.S. standing firm in its defense of human rights in China while engaging on
other issues.

Clinton spoke to Chen on the phone when he left the embassy and, in a statement, welcomed the resettlement agreement as one that “reflected his choices and our values.”

But the murky circumstances of Chen’s departure from the embassy, and his sudden appeal to leave China after declaring he wanted to stay, again threatened to overshadow talks that were to focus on the global economic crisis and hotspots such as North Korea, Iran, Syria and Sudan.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry signaled its unhappiness with the entire affair, demanding that the U.S. apologize for giving Chen sanctuary at the embassy.

“What the U.S. side has done has interfered in the domestic affairs of China, and the Chinese side will never accept it,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a statement.

Chen, 40, became an international human rights figure and inspiration to many ordinary Chinese after running afoul of local government officials for exposing forced abortions carried out as part of China’s one-child policy. He served four years in prison on what supporters said were fabricated charges, then was kept under house arrest with his wife, daughter and mother, with the adults often being roughed by officials and his daughter searched and harassed.

Blinded by childhood fever but intimately familiar with the terrain of his village, Chen slipped from his guarded farmhouse in eastern China’s Shandong province at night on April 22. He made his way through fields and forest, along roads and across a narrow river to meet the first of several supporters who helped bring him to Beijing and the embassy — his guards unaware for three days that he was gone.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner disputed Chen’s claim that he was left alone by the Americans at the hospital.

“There were U.S. officials in the building,” the spokesman told reporters. “I believe some of his medical team was in fact with him at the hospital.” He said U.S. officials would continue visiting Chen while he was there.

Chen's supporters in the U.S. called on Clinton to meet him directly, and one of them, Republican Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey, said it appeared the resettlement agreement “seems to have been done under significant duress.”

“If ever there was a test of the U.S. commitment to human rights, it should have been at that moment, potentially sending him back to a very real threat,” he said.

But no one appeared to know precisely what to make of Chen's change of heart. He had welcomed a deal that let him stay in China and work for change, telling his lawyer Li Jinsong on the way to the hospital, “I’m free, I’ve received clear assurances,” according to Li.

Toner said three U.S. officials heard Chen tell Clinton in broken English on the phone that he wanted to kiss her in gratitude. Chen told the AP that he actually told Clinton, “I want to see you now.”

Nor is it clear how the U.S. could be party to an agreement on Chen's safety inside China when it has no power to enforce the conditions of his life there.

Ai Xiaoming, a documentary filmmaker and activist, said the Chinese government fails to ensure people’s rights, so the best solution would be for Chen and his family to go to America.

“In the first place, Chen Guangcheng should not have to ask a foreign country to protect his rights,” Ai said. “His rights should be protected by his own country, through the constitution. But it is obvious that this cannot be done.”

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said no U.S. official said anything to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children. Nor did the Chinese relay any such threats to American diplomats, she said. She did confirm that if he did not leave the embassy the Chinese intended to return his family to their home province of Shandong, where they had been detained and beaten by local officials, and that they would lose any chance of being reunited.

“At every opportunity, he expressed his desire to stay in China, reunify with his family, continue his education and work for reform in his country,” Nuland said. “All our diplomacy was directed at putting him in the best possible position to achieve his objectives.”

Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor who is advising Chen at the State Department’s request, said there was never any explicit discussion of a threat against Chen’s wife.

“There was no indication in four or five hours of talks that he knew of any threat to her life,” cohen said.

Senior U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the intense negotiations that led to Chen leaving the embassy, said the U.S. helped Chen get into the embassy because he injured his leg escaping from his village. In the embassy, Chen did not request safe passage out of China or asylum in the U.S., the officials said.

U.S. officials said the deal called for Chen to settle outside his home province of Shandong and have several university options to choose from. They also said the Chinese government had promised to treat Chen “like any other student in China” and to investigate allegations of abuse against him and his family by local authorities.

Clinton said the U.S. would monitor China's assurances. “Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task,” she said.

Printed on Thursday, May 3, 2012 as: Chinese dissident afraid, now wants to leave country

Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng shown in a 2007 YouTube video.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIJING — The surprising escape of a blind legal activist from house arrest to the presumed custody of U.S. diplomats is buoying China’s embattled dissident community even as the government lashes out, detaining those who helped him and squelching mention of his name on the Internet.

The flight of Chen Guangcheng, a campaigner for disabled rights and against coercive family planning, is a challenge for China’s authoritarian government and, if it’s confirmed he is in U.S. custody, for Washington too. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell began a hurried mission to Beijing on Sunday to smooth the way for annual talks involving his boss, Hillary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and scores of officials.

Though Chen — a self-taught legal activist described by friends and supporters as calm and charismatic — hardly seems a threat, security forces and officials have reacted angrily, detaining several of his supporters and a nephew who fought with officials after the escape was discovered is on the run.

Police showed up at the home of veteran activists Zeng Jinyan and Hu Jia, who met with Chen last week while he was hiding in Beijing. Police took Hu away Saturday for 24 hours. They questioned Zeng for about a half-hour at home, sounding, she said, “very unhappy” about Chen’s flight.

“They were really irritated,” Zeng said. “It was a big shock for them.”

Ai Xiaoming, a documentary film maker based in southern Guangzhou city, said Chen’s escape has had the biggest emotional impact on Chinese rights advocates since jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago.

“There are many people now drinking toasts to him for the way he broke through his captivity, his difficulties, and pursued freedom,” said Ai. “It’s what we all want for ourselves in our hearts. Chen Guangcheng is an example to us. If a blind person can break out of the darkness to freedom, then everyone can.”

China’s state-controlled media have so far ignored the story despite its gripping narrative and the serious implications it could have on Sino-U.S. relations. Anything vaguely related to Chen has been blocked on Chinese social media sites.

The media blackout and online controls haven’t prevented China’s Internet savvy activist community from learning about or celebrating Chen’s escape. After state television aired a rerun Saturday of the American prison break film “Shawshank Redemption,” some gleefully tweeted that it was an indirect nod to Chen. “Shawshank Redemption” became a banned search term.

Chen’s whereabouts have yet to be confirmed. Activists in China and overseas have said Chen is either under U.S. protection or in the U.S. Embassy.

Chen’s escape comes as the Chinese leadership is already reeling, trying to heal divisions over the ousting of a powerful politician, Bo Xilai, and complete a once-a-decade transition to a new generation of leaders. As in Chen’s case, the U.S. is implicated: Bo’s ouster was precipitated by the sudden flight of an aide to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu.

While the aide, Wang Lijun, gave himself up to Chinese authorities — and though Republicans have criticized President Barack Obama for letting a valuable intelligence asset go — the incident and Chen’s escape reaffirm long-held suspicions by Beijing that the U.S. wants to undermine the communist government. Late last week, the White House, in a reversal, said it was considering selling new warplanes to Taiwan — the democratic island China claims as a breakaway territory.

It’s not known what Chen’s intentions are: some say he wants to stay in China. But negotiating any exit from U.S. custody is likely to be difficult for the Obama administration. Beijing is likely to be wary of any concessions, fearing they might embolden other activists.

Without confirming if Chen is in U.S. hands, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said the president would work to further human rights while preserving ties with Beijing.

“I think in all instances the president tries to balance our commitment to human rights, making sure that the people throughout the world have the ability to express themselves freely and openly, but also that we can continue to carry out our relationships with key countries overseas,” Brennan said on the U.S. television news show “Fox News Sunday”.

Complicating any negotiations over Chen is the treatment of his family. While Chen escaped a week ago from Dongshigu village and made it 600 kilometers (370 miles) northwest to Beijing, his wife and 6-year-old daughter were left behind. The whereabouts of several other relatives, including Chen’s mother and brother, are unknown.

Seven lawyers have volunteered to defend Chen’s nephew, Chen Kegui, who allegedly confronted and stabbed local officials who stormed his house in the middle of the night on Thursday in apparent retribution for the activist’s escape.

One volunteer lawyer, Liu Weiguo, said he spoke with Kegui briefly Sunday afternoon via mobile phone. Kegui told the lawyer he was by a highway about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from his home village, penniless and hoping to find a local police station where he could turn himself in.

“Since he escaped, they haven’t punished his persecutors in Shandong” province, said Zeng, the Beijing activist. “Instead it’s the activists and supporters who have been detained or disappeared. It’s very clear that Chen’s supporters and family members are very vulnerable right now.”

Among the activists still in custody are He Peirong, a Nanjing activist and Chen supporter who drove the blind lawyer’s getaway car out of his home province of Shandong, and Guo Yushan, a Beijing scholar and rights advocate who aided Chen in the capital.

For a rural activist, Chen had gathered a wide following, a testament to what supporters describe as his generous spirit and determination to fight injustice. His exposure of forced abortions and sterilizations in his community so angered officials, they persecuted him, sending him to jail for four years and then upon his release confining him to his home, where he was isolated and occasionally beaten.

Civil rights lawyers, journalists, diplomats and even British actor Christian Bale have tried to penetrate the heavy security that has surrounded Chen for the last 20 months. Each time, hired guards drove them back, sometimes pelting outsiders with rocks and chasing them with cars.

For China’s human rights defenders, Chen’s dash to freedom was a bright spot after nearly two years of mounting harassment. Ai, the documentary filmmaker, said Chen’s hardships have been unique but his aspirations for a more open society with greater legal protections are shared by many.

“We have jails inside ourselves that make us worry that we will be punished if we speak our minds because this society doesn’t respect the rule of law and doesn’t fully protect freedom of speech,” she said. “Chen Guangcheng is a model, and he has shown us that we can break away from those fears.”

Printed on Monday, April 30, 2012 as: Blind activist in China escaped into US custody

BEIJING (AP) — A flamboyant and telegenic politician who until recently seemed destined for the top ranks of China’s leadership was stripped of his most powerful posts on Tuesday and his wife named in the murder of a British businessman as Chinese leaders moved to stem a scandal that has exposed divisive infighting.

The announcement that Bo Xilai was being suspended from the Communist Party’s Politburo and Central Committee and that his wife was a suspect in a homicide investigation put an end to a colorful political career. Media-savvy with a populist flair, Bo gained a nationwide following for busting organized crime and for reviving communist culture while running the inland mega-city of Chongqing.

His publicity-seeking ways angered some in the top leadership, however. In recent weeks, allegations of Bo’s and his family’s misdeeds leaked into public view, threatening to complicate preparations by the leadership for a delicate, once-a-decade transition to younger leaders at a congress later this year.

“This means the political career of Bo Xilai is over,” said Cheng Li, a Chinese politics expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The party wants to really resolve the Bo Xilai crisis in a relatively short period of time. They want to make sure that the attention for the 18th party congress will not suffer too much from the Bo Xilai episode.”

Bo’s patrons included retired party elders who retain influence over senior appointments, and among his vocal supporters were influential generals and party members, scholars and ordinary Chinese who identify themselves as leftists. His removal raises questions about whether Chinese leaders will have to make concessions to them to achieve the political balance that has restrained factional fighting in recent decades.

“A political succession that seemed completely predictable has been upended,” said June Teufel Dreyer, a China politics expert at University of Miami. “We may be in for more surprises.”

An editorial to run Wednesday in the party’s People’s Daily newspaper appealed for unity and said the investigation into Bo’s violations would show the leadership’s “solid resolve in safeguarding party discipline and the rule of law.”

Tuesday’s announcement, carried by state media, provided details of what has been a lurid and embarrassing scandal for the leadership.

Bo’s removal from top government posts came on suspicion of involvement in unspecified but “serious discipline violations,” the Central Committee said, and his case was handed over to internal party investigators.

His wife, Gu Kailai, and an orderly at their home were being investigated for intentional homicide in the death of Briton Neil Heywood, the Xinhua News Agency said. Heywood’s death in November in Chongqing was initially blamed on excessive drinking, something his friends have said he was not known to do.

Tuesday’s brief reports sketch out and corroborate accounts that have circulated among politically connected Chinese ever since Bo’s high-flying career began unraveling in February after a trusted aide fled temporarily to the U.S.

Consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu.

The aide, Wang Lijun, had suspicions that Bo’s family was involved in Heywood’s death, people familiar with the case said. After Bo sought to squelch an investigation, Wang sought asylum in the consulate and brought with him documents, the people said.

The Xinhua report confirmed that while at the consulate, Wang alleged that Heywood had been murdered. The allegations prompted the British government to ask for a new inquiry and, Xinhua said, prompted Chinese authorities to reopen an investigation.

The Xinhua account said that Gu and the couple’s son, Bo Guagua, had been on good terms with Heywood but that they had a conflict over unspecified “economic interests” that worsened. The investigators found that Heywood’s death was likely a homicide and that Gu and the family orderly, Zhang Xiaojun, are suspects, Xinhua said.

British media previously reported that Heywood’s family and friends appeared to dismiss foul play when he died in November. Instead the family believed he had died of a heart attack.

While the British government had not initially sought an investigation, it welcomed Tuesday’s announcement of a new probe.

“We now look forward to seeing those investigations take place and hearing the outcome of those investigations,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. “I don’t want to prejudice their conduct in any way.”

While Bo officially is suspended and still a party member, the same tactic was used in 2006 against Shanghai’s party secretary, Chen Liangyu, who was eventually sentenced to 18 years in prison for bribery, abuse of power and other acts of corruption.

The Xinhua report about Heywood’s death referred to Bo as “comrade,” a term reserved for party members. But it identified his wife as “Bogu Kailai,” an unexplained combining of their last names.

Even before Wang’s flight to the consulate, Bo’s standing had been under fire. His signature campaigns — a crackdown on organized crime and a revival of Mao Zedong-era communist songs and stories — gained him a national following but also earned him critics.

The gang busting ran roughshod over civil liberties, with legal scholars and some businessmen victims accusing authorities of torture and other tactics to steer deals toward people in Bo’s favor.

Meanwhile, the Mao culture campaign dredged up memories of the chaotic, radical Cultural Revolution in which many Chinese were persecuted for being insufficiently loyal.

In promising a thorough investigation into Bo, the People’s Daily editorial said: “There is no privileged citizen before the law. The Party does not tolerate any special member who is above the law. No one can interfere with law enforcement and anyone who violates the law could not be at large.”

Associated Press reporters Gillian Wong in Beijing and Sylvia Hui in London contributed to this report.

In this Friday March 2, 2012 photo, a worker stands at a construction site of a new apartment complex in Shanghai, China. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao outlined plans Monday, March 5, 2012 to fuel domestic consumption, including subsidies for social programs and higher spending for businesses, as the government grapples with a slowing economy and rising public demands for greater fairness

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIJING — China’s premier outlined plans Monday to fuel domestic consumption, including subsidies for social programs and higher spending for businesses, as the government grapples with a slowing economy and rising public demands for greater fairness.

In a speech that is China’s equivalent of the state-of-the-nation, Premier Wen Jiabao offered increased assistance and programs to benefit a wide array of groups: higher minimum wages, heftier subsidies for education and farmers, more loans for strapped private businesses and added help for troubled exporters. He called for more paid vacations for workers and expanded consumer credit.

The aim, Wen said, is to help China weather a shift as it looks for new engines of domestic growth while its main markets in Europe and the United States struggle and an investment binge at home flags while demand for jobs persists.

“Internationally, the road to global economic recovery will be tortuous,” Wen said at the opening of the national legislature’s annual session in the Great Hall of the People. “Domestically, it has become more urgent but also more difficult to solve institutional and structural problems and alleviate the problem of unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable development.”

In a sign of the government’s downshift, Wen set the economy’s growth target at 7.5 percent, lower than the 8 percent it has stood at for years. Though forecasts project higher than 8 percent growth for the year, the lower target underscores Beijing’s emphasis on better, not faster growth.

While the National People’s Congress is a largely pro forma affair — its nearly 3,000 delegates are mostly members of the ruling Communist Party — this year’s 10-day session is likely to see more intense back-channel politicking as the leadership negotiates a delicate political transition. President Hu Jintao, Wen and most others in the senior leadership are due to begin stepping aside for a younger generation of leaders.

The program Wen outlined bore all the hallmarks of his and Hu’s nearly decade-old administration. Their leadership has built out a social safety net, trying to redistribute growth away from the prosperous coastal cities toward rural and inland areas and to raise working-class and rural incomes.

Their slow, gradualist approach to policymaking, however, has drawn criticism in recent months as too piecemeal and risk-averse to take on entrenched interests, particularly the powerful state enterprises that dominate the economy and their backers in the bureaucracy. Such a restructuring is needed, the World Bank and outside economists say, if China wants to rise from a middle-income to rich country.

“Political reforms that will cause fundamental changes to the power and interests of different social groups are not going to happen” because the government will not give way to allow public participation, said Yang Fengchun, a professor of government administration at Peking University.

At home, many analysts and political critics have been calling on the leadership to begin reforms to a more open, democratic political system and stop stifling dissent. Squelching protests by farmers dispossessed of their land, migrant workers angry over unfair treatment and even middle-class homeowners upset over pollution and falling home prices consume ever greater government resources.

Always-high security was smothering in central Beijing as the congress opened. Police searched people on the streets around Tiananmen Square, and officers led German shepherds through the crowds watching from afar as the busloads of delegates arrived. At the daily flag-raising ceremony on the square at dawn, plainclothes police grabbed a middle-aged woman just as she tried to scatter leaflets and trundled her into a van. During his nearly 110-minute speech, Wen touched upon the need for social stability several times and alluded to recent anti-government protests by Tibetans and armed clashes with Muslim Uighurs.

“China is a unified multiethnic country,” said Wen. “Only when its ethnic groups are united as one and work for the development of all can China achieve prosperity.”

Mostly, Wen dwelled on the economy and encouraging household spending, which has often gotten short-shrift in government planning that has long favored infrastructure investment and state industries.

“Expanding domestic demand, particularly consumer demand, which is essential to ensuring China’s long-term, steady, and robust economic development, is the focus of our economic work this year,” Wen said.

Overall, Wen said central and local government spending will rise more than 14 percent to 12.4 trillion yuan ($1.97 trillion). Social security and employment and affordable housing received the largest spending increases — 21.9 percent and 23.1 percent respectively. Education spending also continues to rise, with more tuition assistance for students from rural and poor families. More money is to go to school bus safety — a hot-button issue after a collision involving an overcrowded school bus killed 19 students in November.

Mindful of public criticism of rampant corruption and waste, Wen said the government would limit spending on overseas trips and official vehicles and prohibit leading officials from interfering in auctioning off land-use and mining rights. He vowed to “severely punish corruptionists.” The promise drew light applause.