The Chinese authorities on Tuesday released a founder of a research institute who was instrumental in helping the legal activist Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) gain asylum in the US after he escaped house arrest three years ago.
The founder, Guo Yushan (郭玉閃), an academic who led the Transition Institute, was released from custody along with He Zhengjun (何正軍), the administrative director of the now-closed institute, according to family members and lawyers.
Both men have been accused of illegally printing books and other publications, charges that remain in effect while they are free on bail.
Their release comes ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) trip to the US next week for his first state visit. Some analysts interpreted the timing as an attempt by Beijing to blunt potential criticism in Washington of China’s human rights record.
Guo, 38, does not fit the standard profile of a provocateur. The institute he helped establish in 2007 used scholarship and hard data to make the case for reforming the taxi industry and for abolishing residency rules that complicate the lives of rural migrants living in big cities.
He steered clear of more assertive demands for change, including a short-lived campaign orchestrated by a colleague, Xu Zhiyong (許志永), that used street protests to highlight official corruption and inequality in education.
The authorities promptly crushed the campaign, the New Citizens Movement, and jailed its leaders, including Xu.
Although the work of the Transition Institute was not particularly radical, the source of much of its funding — liberal Western foundations — alarmed the authorities at a time when Beijing feared the Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East might gain traction in China.
However, it was Guo’s role in helping Chen, who is blind, sneak into the US embassy in Beijing — an episode that deeply embarrassed the Chinese government — that most likely caused the closing of his institute and prompted his eventual detention.
In a 2013 interview after he emerged from 81 days of house arrest, Guo said the police had warned of more serious consequences for having helped Chen make the 563km journey from Shandong Province to the nation’s capital. A year later, he was taken into police custody during a late night raid on his Beijing apartment.
He, 33, was detained a month later, and the two men were subsequently charged with “illegal business activity,” a charge related to 19,000 publications that the police said the institute had printed without official permission.
In a text message on Tuesday, Guo’s wife, Pan Haixia (潘海霞), said he returned home just after midnight on Tuesday. Pan, who said she was acting as his lawyer, described him as being in “good spirits,” but declined to make him available for an interview.
A lawyer for He said by telephone that he was surprised to learn that his client had been released. The lawyer said the police lacked evidence to back up their allegations.
“Would you release someone who committed murder?” the lawyer asked. “They were released because they committed no crime at all.”
Hu Jia (胡佳), a prominent dissident and a friend of Guo’s, described his release as a “diplomatic card” that the government hoped would ease criticism of Beijing’s crackdown on independent journalists, rights lawyers and advocates for political reform.
“They release 1 percent of the jailed political dissidents, but are relieved of 80 percent of the pressure they face,” he said by telephone.
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