As the U.S. and China edged toward resolving the thorny case of Chen Guangcheng, Chinese media criticized the escaped dissident as a tool of the West, a rare mention of the blind activist whose plight threw the two countries into a political crisis this week.
"This so-called 'rights defense hero' has been packaged by the United States and Western media and given an eye-catching political label, (and) set up as a representative figure against society and against the system," the Beijing Daily said in a scathing commentary translated by Reuters. "Chen Guangcheng has become a tool and a pawn for American politicians to blacken China."
The official newspaper went on to accuse U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke of stirring up unrest, "performing a role that is far from glorious and even could be called low and petty" in the Chen case, Reuters reported.
The Global Times, a paper tied to the Communist Party, said that Chen had once been a popular defender of farmers and the blind, but "gradually resorted to extreme and violent ways."
"Unfortunately, when trying to attract the international spotlight by being violently against the government, Chen became a political pawn and was used as a tool to work against China's political system by some Western forces," the Global Times wrote Thursday. "Chen now has turned from an activist into a political tool of some forces with ulterior motives."
The dramatic case dominated U.S. headlines after Chen escaped house arrest and fled to the U.S. Embassy. Chen, who was jailed and then confined to his home after exposing forced sterilizations and other abuses in Shandong province, earlier agreed to stay in China but now says he wants to come to the U.S. for a while, possibly studying at an American university.
While the Chen drama has engrossed Americans, putting the Obama administration on the defensive over its handling of the delicate case, it has scarcely showed up in Chinese media.
On Friday, the leading online headline in the People's Daily was "A neutral U.S. helpful to stability in S. China Sea." China Daily led its website with "Hu stresses partnership at U.S.-China dialogue."
In some of the few Chinese media mentions of the case, the official New China News Agency reported that Beijing wants the U.S. to apologize over the incident and later relayed a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry saying that Chen could study abroad "through the same channels as other Chinese citizens."
The story has been heavily censored in China, including on social media, where Weibo users have tried to dodge the censors by using code names such as "Shawshank Redemption" or "blind man." Foreign and local journalists trying to cover the story have been harassed and stripped of their press cards, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: In this photo released by the U.S. Embassy Beijing Press Office, blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng sits in a chair at the U.S. Embassy before he left for a hospital in Beijing on Wednesday. Credit: U.S. Embassy Beijing Press Office