Chen Guangcheng

Struggle of hope versus fear

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 May, 2012, 12:00am


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A veteran American expert on Chinese law who counselled Chen Guangcheng for hours before he decided to leave the US embassy this week has explained what he thinks were reasons that led to the blind activist's change of heart.

Chen was wavering when he was in the embassy. 'On Monday, after 21/2 hours of talking with the US officials and with him, I told them the deal was off. Chen was too afraid,' New York University law professor Jerome Cohen told the South China Morning Post late on Thursday. 'He kept saying feichang bu anquan (very unsafe); I said, 'Look, if that's your feeling, no way you could accept this deal.' And we left it, dropped it.'

But on Tuesday, Chen appeared to have changed his mind, Cohen said, and the two talked for another two hours on the phone going over details of the plan.

The deal Cohen referred to is one that would ultimately allow Chen to stay in China and pursue legal studies in Tianjin , with his family safe with him. Cohen said the deal was made in principle only, and he had not seen any written document.

Chen's wife, Yuan Weijing , supported the deal while he was still in the embassy, Cohen said, suggesting Chen's conversations with other human rights advocates, including Teng Biao and Zeng Jinyan , immediately after leaving US protection on Wednesday might have prompted his about-turn - to leave for the US with his family.

'It's natural,' Cohen said. 'Teng gave him the best advice he could based on his harsh experience and [that of] so many others. What they effectively said was, 'Give up, you can't be a Don Quixote. Be realistic, they will never allow you to do what you want.' ... It's a shame that [Chen] ... didn't have a chance to consult them before he left the embassy.'

Cohen said other factors compounded Chen's fears. At the hospital, all he saw were Chinese police but no US officials. There was no food, which might have panicked him, thinking his family was going to starve, Cohen said. 'He was in a very susceptible frame of mind.'

Cohen described Chen as struggling with intense pressures to accommodate different considerations while trying to make such a big decision, 'a choice of career, aspirations, goals, family, personal and physical security, psychological comfort'.

'He's facing very harsh alternatives. The attractive yet risky one, of staying in China and going on with legal development, and the unattractive one of staying indefinitely [in the embassy], but just by himself without his family for a year, for 10 years - we don't know.'

Cohen said the example of artist-activist Ai Weiwei , who has 'been able to do a lot' since being released last year from nearly three months of government detention, was one reason to hope the deal would succeed for Chen.

'If there's a way to continue a meaningful life in China, that's an option to be tried, with the fallback if [the Chinese] fail to live up to their word, he could get out.'

The pair also expected the agreement to be backed by a pledge from US President Barack Obama had the deal gone through.

Cohen said he understood Beijing was very angry with Chen and was prepared to make him languish in the embassy. But Chinese officials stuck to their word: they sent his wife and children from Shandong to Beijing as requested and let him call his friends right after leaving the embassy. 'The Chinese were trying to make this thing work, at the outset at least,' but they were 'never given a chance' because the deal was seen as having fallen apart quickly.

'This is the irony,' he said. 'The very freedom of communication we were worried about, [Chen received]. He was allowed to talk to [the media and his friends]. Immediately, he had a considerable, not perfect, freedom of communication and paradoxically, that changed the deal.'

The mood among Chinese rights advocates was key to swaying Chen, Cohen said. 'Teng ticked off a long list of names implying these people have been neutered or moderated, suppressed in various ways. They must be pretty demoralised at this point, because they certainly advised the family to get out now.'