After leaving the U.S. embassy and checking into a Chinese hospital, blind Chinese activist, Chen Guangcheng, may have lost his best chance to leave the country. Other Chinese dissidents have chosen exile to ensure their family's safety, but the choice carries drawbacks for their advocacy work.
Wang Dan, one of the student leaders in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, takes part in a candlelight vigil for protesters crushed during the protests at the Liberty Square of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, in Taipei, Taiwan, June 4, 2011.
Wang Dan is one such activist. As one of the most visible leaders of the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing, he served two jail terms. In April 1998, he was released on medical parole, and exiled to the U.S., where he remained politically engaged.
Wang says after his first jail term in 1993, authorities offered him the chance to leave China but he decided against it.
“I thought I could still do something for China from within,” he said. “At the time most people had been arrested, or did not dare to talk. I thought it was best for me at least to keep talking.”
But in 1998, facing an 11-year jail sentence, Wang realized that his future in China would have meant only confinement.
“I could do nothing to promote democracy in China,” he explained, “I thought it best to go to the U.S. and improve myself."
Wang has since earned a doctoral degree in history at Harvard University. He is now an assistant professor at Tsinghua University in Taiwan and has been blacklisted from ever returning to the mainland.
A self-taught lawyer, Chen Guangcheng collected testimony of forced abortions and sterilizations in his own province, Shandong, where local family planning officials were using coercive measures to meet the requirements of China's one child policy.
Chen's attempts to bring a class action lawsuit on behalf of female victims angered authorities, who responded by giving him a four-year jail sentence on charges of damaging property and organizing a mob. Even after he was released from jail, local officials illegally kept him under tightly-guarded house arrest, until last week, when with the help of supporters he fled his village and went to Beijing.
U.S. officials say during the six days Chen Guangcheng took shelter inside the American embassy, he expressed no intention of leaving China.
Stay or leave?
Joshua Rosenzweig, an independent human rights researcher based in Hong Kong, recognizes that a decision either way carries downsides.
“Working within the Chinese context involves a great deal of risk,” he said, adding that activists need to be careful in their efforts and accept only very gradual change.
For those dissidents who choose safety and flee the country, there is the new problem of remaining engaged with people inside China.
“There is a conventional view among many that once an activist, or a dissident leaves the borders of China they simply, become irrelevant,” Rosenzweig said.
In recent years the Internet has helped narrow this gap and connect activists to their peers inside China, despite authorities’ ability to cut off and monitor electronic communications.
Before leaving the U.S. embassy, Chen was reportedly offered what activists have said would be a highly unusual deal in which he could live freely in China, and enroll into a university without government harassment. American officials said they would monitor the situation and make sure the Chinese did not backtrack from its commitment to keep Chen and his family out of harm's way.
Human Rights Watch's Sophie Richardson points out that Beijing is trying to guarantee rights that Chen, as a Chinese citizen, should already have.
“The guarantees that have been offered up to him are ridiculous in the sense that these are rights and freedoms that already should be guaranteed to him under existing Chinese laws,” she said. "Let's point a finger where it belongs, which is back at the government, which continues in one way or another, which it does with all activists, to threaten them over their work.”
Wang Dan, who recently co-signed a letter asking the Chinese government to give exiled dissidents permission to visit China, agrees that Beijing's reassurances might be short-lived.
“The authorities might say that they won’t harass him, but I think nonetheless that there would be covert spying and interference in his life. He will not have the opportunity to do what he really wants to,” Wang said.
Other Chinese Dissidents Who Have Left Their Homeland