The whereabouts of Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng is currently the subject of intense speculation. Some believe that the prominent blind dissident, who escaped from 19 months of house arrest last week, has taken refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing, while others say he may be hiding out in the residence of U.S. ambassador Gary Locke or another American diplomat. The New York Times even quoted one anonymous diplomat in China as suggesting that Chen might have queued up in a long line at the U.S. embassy's visa section and then sought asylum once inside the compound (it's difficult to imagine Chen, with his iconic dark glasses, blending in with the crowd). Now, on the eve of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to Beijing, U.S. and Chinese officials are reportedly engaged in tense negotiations over Chen's fate.
If the reports are true, Chen's gambit is hardly unprecedented. Broadly speaking, of course, the idea of seeking refuge can be traced all the way back to the biblical notion of special cities for those who killed people accidentally. In the Middle Ages -- beginning as early as the 4th century A.D. -- the Catholic Church began butting heads with civil authorities over the practice of offering criminals various forms of sanctuary in and around churches (the monarchs eventually proved victorious, as church sanctuaries became, in the words of scholar Hilary Cunningham, "holding pens for criminals pursued by the royal courts" before vanishing altogether). These practices, however, generally applied to those suspected of committing crimes -- not political refugees.
The act of seeking sanctuary in foreign embassies gained traction in the 20th century, but fleeing to a diplomatic mission wasn't always a safe bet. In 1927, for example, the anti-Communist Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin ordered a raid on the Soviet embassy in Beijing, arresting and executing 20 Communist activists who had sought refuge there including Li Dazhao, co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party.
But, for the most part, the recognition of embassies as off-limits to the host-country authorities gradually became a fundamental principal of customary international law over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, though the seeds were planted earlier (a Venetian statute in 1554 declared that "he who has taken refuge in the house of a diplomat shall not be followed there, and his pursuers are to feign ignorance of his presence").
In 1956, for instance, when the Soviet Union sent troops into Hungary to reassert control over the country, reformist Communist leader Imre Nagy took refuge at the embassy of non-aligned Yugoslavia. Yuri Andropov, the Soviet ambassador to Hungary and future Communist Party general secretary, promised Nagy safe passage out of the country but then arrested him as soon as he left the compound. He was executed after a secret trial the next year.
Another leader of the Hungarian uprising, Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty, took refuge at the U.S. embassy after the Soviet invasion and ended up spending the next 15 years inside the embassy compound, with local police keeping a 24-hour watch to prevent him from escaping. He was eventually permitted to leave Hungary in 1971.
In 1961, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations codified prevailing customary law by declaring the "premises" of diplomatic missions "inviolable" -- effectively barring security agents in a host country from entering embassy grounds without the embassy's permission. The treaty added that "premises" included the head of the diplomatic mission's residence and that the private residences of diplomats also enjoyed "inviolability," though it's unclear whether this clause applies to all diplomats. The New York Times points out that if Chen is indeed holed up in an American diplomat's apartment, it "could leave him open to an attempt by security forces to seize him," according to unnamed diplomats interviewed by the paper.
This inviolability explains why embassies are our modern-day sovereign sanctuaries. But, importantly, the Vienna Convention says nothing about a diplomatic mission granting asylum to a person fleeing authorities in the host country -- what the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and others have called "diplomatic asylum" (Latin America, for its part, has enshrined the concept of "diplomatic asylum" in regional treaties.) Asylum seekers typically leave their country before applying for help either in the country where they want to resettle or in a third country.