China’s blind activist Chen may have to accept exile
BEIJING, May 1 – Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng will be sidelined in his quest to defend human rights and press for change in China if he agrees to accept political asylum in the United States, exiled dissidents said.
The combative, self-taught lawyer escaped house arrest in Shandong province last week and travelled to Beijing where he is with US officials, according to his supporters, presumably in the American embassy or at the ambassador’s residence.
Chen (picture) has told friends he is determined to stay in China, the supporters say, but he now faces a difficult decision as diplomatic talks continue with Chinese authorities over his future.
Former Tiananmen Square protest leader Chai Ling said Chen may have no alternative but to leave.
“You just have to go because there is no other way, no other choice,” said Chai, 46, a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests who escaped from China via Hong Kong and Paris after the Tiananmen crackdown and now lives in Boston.
Fellow Tiananmen student leader and exile Wang Dan agrees.
“Ideally, maybe it’s better to stay in China, then he can fight for freedom and human rights, but I don’t think he can really do that in China because he would be surrounded by policemen,” said Wang, 42, another Tiananmen protest leader, who was in prison in 1998 when he was allowed to leave China for the US.
“We know if we leave China it becomes more difficult for us to achieve our dream to promote democracy and human rights in China.”
Negotiations over Chen loom as one of the thorniest challenges to US-China ties since the aftermath of the Tiananmen upheaval when high-profile activist, astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, took refuge in the US ambassador’s residence in Beijing.
After more than a year in the embassy, Fang was allowed in 1990 to leave for the US, where he died last month.
The Obama administration has refused to comment publicly on Chen’s case but has sent a senior diplomat to negotiate a solution ahead of high-level talks in Beijing this week between the two countries, a source in Washington briefed on the matter said yesterday.
On a number of occasions in recent years, Chinese authorities have relented to diplomatic pressure and allowed high-profile dissidents to leave the country, often on the grounds that they need medical treatment abroad.
At times, Beijing has appeared to use these deals as bargaining chips in broader diplomatic negotiations or to blunt criticism of its human rights record.
Chen, jailed and harassed for years for his campaigns against forced abortions and sterilisations under China’s birth control policies, remained defiant in a message videotaped after his escape where he called for an official investigation into mistreatment he and his family had suffered.
Guo Yushan, one of the supporters who helped Chen make his escape from a village in rural Shandong Province where he was under house arrest, said the veteran activist had unfinished business.
“He was adamant that he would not apply for political asylum with any country,” Guo said.
“He certainly wants to stay in China and demand redress for the years of illegal persecution in Shandong and continue his efforts for Chinese society.”
Chen, who lost his sight as a child, educated himself in law to press his rights as a disabled citizen. He gained a nationwide profile when he broadened his demands to include farmers’ rights.
After the turn of the century, he was among a wave of “rights defenders” who wanted to tame the ruling Communist Party’s powers through court cases and publicity.
But after early successes, the authorities began to turn on him and in 2006, Chen was jailed on charges that he whipped up a crowd that disrupted traffic and damaged property. Released in 2010, he had been under virtual house arrest since last September.
LIFE IN EXILE
If Beijing does allow him to leave, it will do so knowing that most troublesome activists are effectively neutralised after they go into exile and are without support of friends and family.
Along with homesickness, many battle to build a new life after being abruptly removed from a struggle that has become part of their identity.
Even if some of Chen’s immediate family were allowed to join him, it would still be a wrenching decision to be separated from those left behind, particularly if they remained vulnerable to persecution, according to fellow activists.
“Every dissident actually risks losing their family members one way or another,” veteran pro-democracy activist Yang Jianli said, recalling his own anguish at leaving family and friends behind when he left China for the US.
“It’s not an easy decision for people like Chen Guangcheng, but he has chosen to do the work and he chooses to suffer and the family suffers with him, which becomes the most difficult thing.”
Yang said he was fortunate that some of his immediate family including his mother and two sisters also lived in the US but he still had close relatives in China.
“I try to minimise my correspondence with them so as to prevent any bad things from happening to them,” he said.
Fellow activists said Chen would now be wrestling with tough choices that could set the course for the rest of his life.
“I think Mr Chen has a very strong personality, he just simply does not want to give up hope that he can still fight for freedom for other people,” Wang Dan said.
“It takes time for him to change his mind.” – Reuters