By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - China has granted passports to the mother and eldest brother of blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng which they hope to use to visit him in the United States, the brother said in Friday, a concession by Beijing ahead of a Sino-U.S. summit.
The treatment of Chen Guangcheng's family has received prominent attention from the United States, especially as Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama meet this week in California.
Family members have been harassed, and at times beaten, by unidentified men since Chen dramatically escaped house arrest last year and fled to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, before being allowed to go to New York to study.
Chen Guangcheng is a self-schooled legal advocate who campaigned against forced abortions. He was jailed for four years on charges that he and his supporters said were spurious, and held in his village home for 19 months after being released.
Eldest brother Chen Guangfu said a passport application for him and his mother had unexpectedly been approved, after months of obfuscation by local officials.
"They were sent over this morning ... Of course I've very happy as we'd been applying for a long time," Guangfu said by telephone from his home in the eastern province of Shandong.
"Lots of people on the Internet are saying that. I certainly think there's a connection," he said, when asked if he thought the granting of the passports was related to the Xi-Obama get together in California.
"We want to go and see Guangcheng in the United States," Guangfu added. "We've got to discuss it with him."
Guangcheng, speaking later by telephone from New York, said it was a sign of how dysfunctional China was that the simple matter of granting a passport could become news.
"It shows China is not a normal society with rule of law. In the United States or Europe or other democracies an ordinary person can just go and apply for a passport at the post office, it's not a big deal. But in China it becomes big news," he said.
SECURING A U.S. VISA
Guangfu said he was unclear when he and his mother, aged 80, would be able to go, as they were worried they might not be able to get U.S. visas, something he had been told by Chinese officials when they refused his initial passport application.
"The first time I went to apply for the passports they clearly told me that it's hard to get U.S. visas. I'm not sure if it's still going to be the case that they will be hard to obtain," Guangfu said.
Chinese officials had also told him they did not believe he really was Guangcheng's brother.
Since last being beaten up, in early May, Guangfu said things had improved.
"Recently things have been ok, they've been normal. I've no idea why," he said.
Still, he was not optimistic his brother would be allowed back to China anytime soon.
"He has always said he wants to come back, but it's not realistic at the moment."
Officials in Linyi city, which has authority over the village of Dongshigu where the Chen family resides, did not answer telephone calls seeking comment.
China has in the past made similar concessions on human rights ahead of important meetings with the United States.
However, Guangfu's son Chen Kegui remains in jail after being jailed for three years last year for intentional infliction of injury.
And on Sunday, a Beijing court is expected to jail the brother-in-law of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo on fraud charges in a case rights activists have called another example of official retribution on the Liu family.
(Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan and Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Ron Popeski)