TAIPEI, TAIWAN— Prominent Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng may have lost his fellowship at an American university because of pressure from Beijing after escaping China’s house arrest for the United States last year. But on Monday he shared a spotlight with Taiwan, an island that seeks to distance itself politically from old rival mainland China.
Chen, a blind lawyer who had angered Chinese authorities with civil rights and anti-corruption work, arrived in Taiwan Sunday for an 18-day visit that includes meetings with legislators and a speech at the island’s top university. Chen’s first visit to the island gives Taiwan’s embattled president Ma Ying-jeou a chance to show a skeptical public that he has not sold out to China.
The 41-year-old activist told reporters Monday that Taiwan could serve as a political model for China.
Chen noted that the fact that people can go there to discuss all types of problems, attests to part of Taiwan’s democracy. Chen added that if there comes a day in mainland China when journalists can freely ask questions as they do in Taiwan instead of using a propaganda department, then mainland democracy will not be too far off.
Chen is visiting Taiwan to advocate more freedoms and human rights for fellow Chinese, who are also the ethnic majority of Taiwan, while learning how the Taiwanese democratized. His trip comes shortly after New York University ended his one-year fellowship, a move that the dissident calls pressure from China on American education. The university says Chen’s fellowship simply ended as scheduled.
Chen told the news conference he had not decided his next move but that an eventual return to China was inevitable.
Political analysts say Chen’s reception on the island, where he is hosted by a local human rights group, will remind the public that democratic Taiwan can stand up to China. Taiwan is often overshadowed by Beijing’s huge economy and global diplomatic clout. The two sides have grown closer since 2008, when Ma took office and put aside six decades of political hostilities to broker talks on trade and investment.
Some Taiwanese say President Ma has grown too close to China, which they see as a continued political and military threat. William Sharp, professor and author of the book Random Views of Asia from the Mid-Pacific, said the visit will put Taiwan in a welcome spotlight.
“Chen Guangcheng’s visit to Taiwan to address issues of judicial integrity, freedom, human rights is really an opportunity for Taiwan to emphasize its vibrant democracy, to let the world know Taiwan is a bed rock of democracy,” Sharp said.
But President Ma has declined so far to meet with the visiting dissident. China is expected to keep quiet about Chen’s visit, preferring not to rile the Taiwanese public. Analysts say that because Chen’s visit threatens neither China’s territorial claim over Taiwan nor its goal for eventual unification, China has little reason to protest.