HOUSTON -- When news broke today that blind Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng plans to stay in China rather than seek asylum in the U.S., Bob Fu may have been one of the few people who was not surprised.
Fu, who has advocated for Chen and other Chinese human rights activists through his Midland, Texas-based nonprofit ChinaAid, said he has been in touch with Chen, 40, before the activist's dramatic escape to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on April 22.
"He’s not interested in seeking political asylum or refugee" status, said Fu, 44. "If the Chinese government offers him a security guard and meet some of his demands to punish some of the officials, if that's a risk he wants to take, he may just choose to stay in China."
But Fu had been hoping Chen would travel to the U.S. for medical reasons. "If I were him, given the knowledge of what has happened to many of his friends -- kidnapping, torture ... I would advise him at least to come to the U.S. to stay for a while to recuperate and protect his family," he said.
Fu, a father of three who fled China years ago, knows from experience the pressures Chen faces.
During the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, Fu led a group of fellow students from Liaocheng University in Shandong. Later, he became a Christian and began holding underground worship services with help from his wife, Heidi, even as he was teaching English at the Communist Party School in Beijing. He called himself "God's double-agent."
In 1996, the couple were jailed for two months, then placed under house arrest, Fu said. His wife was pregnant with their first child and, without the necessary government permission under China's one-child policy, they feared they would be jailed again.
Like Chen, they escaped government custody.
The couple fled first to Hong Kong, where their son was born, then a year later to Philadelphia, where Fu graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary. The couple started ChinaAid in their garage in 2002, and two years later moved it to Midland, President George W. Bush's West Texas hometown; they became U.S. citizens that same year.
ChinaAid now employs more than half a dozen staff members and has a budget of $1.5 million, much of it raised from local donors in Midland, where Fu is affiliated with the 2,000-member Mid-Cities Community Church.
"They know we are supporting the persecuted in China and advancing religious freedom," Fu said.
Fu says the organization also has several dozen staff members in China, an underground network that supports the families of political prisoners and that provides rule-of-law training and legal help.
On rare occasions, Fu said, this network has even helped some persecuted Chinese citizens escape the country. "Of course, I couldn't reveal who they are," Fu said.
Fu stressed that he is not trying to subvert Chinese law. He said he doesn't even like to be referred to as a dissident, which he associates in Chinese with being a revolutionary bent on starting a new political party or regime.
"For me and Chen, we prefer to operate in a peaceful way within the existing legal framework to transform with our actions and compassion," he said.
According to an agreement among U.S. and Chinese officials reached Wednesday, Chen will be relocated to a safe place and allowed to attend a university free of legal harassment. Chinese officials agreed to investigate Chen's extralegal detention in his village of Dongshigu, where he had been held without charge under house arrest for 19 months. Officials also promised not to punish supporters who helped Chen escape to the embassy.
Fu plans to host an online briefing about the Chen case today, and may travel to Washington on Thursday for a congressional hearing to raise awareness among U.S. officials about the case.
"We want to keep the pressure on so that they won’t forget Chen and his family," he said.