The attempt by four Hong Kong activists to seek asylum in the city’s US consulate follows a string of previous attempts by mainland activists to seek sanctuary in US diplomatic missions.
Tuesday’s attempt, first reported by the South China Morning Post, comes at a time of heightened US-China tensions and has been described as a “hot potato” in the run-up to the US presidential election. Previous asylum attempts threatened to become tipping points in the two countries’ relationship.
One of the most high-profile cases involved Fang Lizhi, a astrophysicist and political dissident, who went into the US embassy a day after the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in June 1989.
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Fang, an expelled Communist Party member, was one of China’s most outspoken dissidents. Earlier that year, the then 53-year old published an open letter to China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, calling for the release of political prisoners and was seen as an inspiration to the student movement that led the mass protests in the heart of Beijing.
Media reports at the time said he agreed to leave the embassy after his first meeting with American diplomats because they were worried that letting him stay would harm the protest movement and would help the government’s argument that they had been influenced by the US.
But he and his wife Li Shuxian later returned to the embassy the following night after the US president George HW Bush personally invited them to stay in the embassy as his “guests”.
They spent more than a year in the embassy before a deal was reached between Washington and Beijing that allowed them to leave the country, ostensibly for medical treatment.
In April 2012, just weeks after Fang’s death, another high-profile dissident sought shelter in the US embassy.
The blind legal activist Chen Guangchen made a dramatic escape from house arrest and made his way to the compound ahead of a visit by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state at the time.
Chen had been sentenced to four years in prison and was later placed under house arrest after angering authorities by exposing forced abortions and sterilisations under China’s one-child policy.
His case prompted a series of tussles between Washington and Beijing as they tried to resolve the case. Initially a deal was reached that Chen would remain in China for medical treatment and he would file complaints that he had been beaten by police.
But he later changed his mind, saying his family’s safety had been threatened. Clinton’s autobiography described his comments as “throwing fuel on the political fire”, saying that her aides had negotiated the initial deal in accordance with the activist’s own wishes.
In May that year, he and his family were allowed to leave for the United States, but others did not fare so well.
In another dramatic incident in February that year, the Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun fled to the US consulate in Sichuan province, claiming his life had been threatened because he had information about the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
The case triggered the downfall of the former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, who was later jailed for corruption, and Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, who was convicted of murdering Heywood.
Wang was turned away from the Chengdu consulate a day after he sought refuge there. Clinton later said that he had not been allowed to stay as he did not meet the legal requirement for asylum.
“He had a record of corruption, of thuggishness, of brutality. He was an enforcer for Bo Xilai,” she later told a forum hosted by the London-based think tank Chatham House.
A Chongqing government spokesman said at the time that Wang left the US consulate only after “earnest and patient persuasion” from three top local officials and a degree of central government intervention. He was later jailed for 15 years.
While the details of the latest case involving the four Hong Kong activists remain largely unknown, their brief visit to the US consulate on Tuesday will be yet another problem for both the US and China at a sensitive time.
“This case is definitely a hot potato for the current US administration given the timing of the election campaign. If this case escalated to become a diplomatic issue, it would surely be big trouble for Trump and his team. Both presidential candidates would not want to see such an incident, it could affect the result one way or another,” Lu Xiang, a specialist on US affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said.
Li Xiaobing, a Hong Kong expert and a law professor at Nankai University in Tianjin, said this event was a “moment of truth” testing the political will of China and the United States in Hong Kong.
“The Chinese leadership is having their crucial meetings in Beijing, planning out the next 15 years, and America is entering the final days of the presidential race.
“I am very sure China will certainly stand very firm on such matters involving its sovereignty, and the US will have to contemplate whether this is the best moment to rock the boat.”
Additional reporting by Laura Zhou and William Zheng
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