Amnesty International protests in front of the Chinese Embassy in Brussels, 2009. (Thierry Roge / Courtesy Reuters)
On June 5, 1989, the day after the bloody crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square, Fang Lizhi, a prominent astrophysicist, and his wife, Li Shuxian, sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Fang, an intellectual and a strong proponent of democracy and human rights, and his wife were at the top of the Chinese government's wanted list. Fang was accused of being one of the "black hands" behind the student demonstrations. For more than a year, he and Li lived in the basement of the U.S. embassy while, outside, the Chinese authorities tracked down, detained, and imprisoned others suspected of so-called "counterrevolutionary crimes." In June 1990, they were allowed to leave China for the United States, where they lived in exile for the next 22 years.
The negotiation over Fang's future was complicated by international response to the Tiananmen crackdown. In the United States, Congress was engaged in debates over annual renewal of China's most-favored-nation (MFN) status. On June 5, 1989, it also imposed an arms embargo on China, and seven governments, including the United States, levied economic sanctions on China. Ultimately, one of Deng Xiaoping's conditions for releasing Fang was the lifting of those sanctions. Much as they are today, human rights issues were clearly tied up with trade and domestic U.S. politics.
On April 6 of this year, Fang died in Tucson, Arizona. A few weeks later, the blind activist and dissident Chen Guangcheng surfaced at the U.S. embassy in China, creating yet another diplomatic crisis for officials in both Beijing and Washington (coming less than two months after regional police chief Wang Lijun sought refuge in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu). On April 22, Chen had made a dramatic escape from 19 months of house arrest
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