For Chen, a brand new struggle

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am
 

The hero's welcome that awaited Chen Guangcheng at New York University last weekend must have been one of the most intense moments in the blind legal activist's life. The floral tributes, applause, cheers and words of admiration were a world away from the suffocating, de facto imprisonment he endured in his rural village in Shandong province until just over a month ago.

Chen and his wife must have sighed with relief in the days that followed as their two children played in a park, enjoying the fun that most children take for granted.

Yet when all the excitement has passed and the limelight has gone, Chen will have to face some sobering questions.

Knowing little English and unable to see, will he become isolated and cut off from mainstream society? Far from China, where his mission lies, will he lose his influence as a symbol of resistance against a repressive regime?

Unfamiliar with his new environment, is he at risk of being used by others to advance their own agendas? Chen has twice spoken at US congressional hearings chaired by Republican Congressman Chris Smith, with the help of the China Aid Association, which is seen as close to the right-leaning, evangelical Christian camp. The Republicans have accused the Obama administration of going soft on China's human rights record and mishandling Chen's case. Observers worry that Chen might be seen as a pawn in US politics and portrayed by some as a symbol of anti-China forces in US politics.

Will he end up like many previously exiled dissidents, who have lost their sense of purpose in a new environment, sunk into obscurity and inadvertently been drawn into the factionalism that bedevils the dissident community?

Analysts say life will not be easy for Chen in the US. Like many dissidents before him, he will have to struggle to maintain his focus and what he stands for, as well as dealing with everyday challenges such as overcoming the language barrier.

First of all, he and his family need time to recover from their traumatic experience. They have been deprived of their freedom for the past seven years and were kept incommunicado for nearly two years.

Chen, who angered local officials by exposing forced abortions and sterilisation, was placed under house arrest from late 2005 and then jailed for more than four years in 2006 on spurious charges. He and his family were immediately put under house arrest again in Dongshigu village, Linyi , upon his release from jail in September 2010.

On April 20, Chen escaped detention, helped by his brother, fellow villagers and associates from Beijing, who drove hundreds of kilometres to pick him up. Days later, he entered the United States embassy in Beijing, shortly before annual Sino-US talks attended by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. His six-day stay at the US embassy triggered a diplomatic crisis, culminating in an initial deal that guaranteed his safety on the mainland. But Chen soon changed his mind, expressing fears over his own security, and a new agreement was struck to allow him to study in the US.

His departure from Beijing eight days ago was kept secret until the last minute.

Joshua Rosenzweig, an independent human rights researcher in Hong Kong, said: 'I can see how this experience in the past few weeks could be quite overwhelming and could leave someone vulnerable.

'Lots of people will want to associate with you and perhaps, not being fully aware of their motivation, there is a risk of being inserted into circumstances not having anything to do with him.

'It will take him time to understand the politics, to be clear about what he stands for and what he does not. It's a challenge.'

Like other overseas-based dissidents, Chen also risks becoming irrelevant away from the real battlefield, cut off from the causes that initially inspired him. Before he was incarcerated, he helped villagers unfairly treated by the authorities to launch lawsuits, and fought for the rights of the disabled and women who were subjected to forced abortions.

Jean-Philippe Beja, senior researcher at the Hong Kong-based French Centre on Contemporary China, said: 'He was a martyr, a symbol of overcoming the impossible and a fighter for basic rights. Once he is gone, it's difficult to stay relevant. After campaigning so hard, he could be frustrated that he can't do anything.'

Chen is neither an ideological thinker nor a political campaigner. It would not be easy for him to position himself or find the right cause to identify with, Beja said. 'Is he going to be a part of the exiled pro-democracy movement? It's difficult to see how he could fit.'

The overseas Chinese dissident community has long been plagued by infighting, disputes and factionalism. Many former icons of the democracy movement soon lost their influence after they went into exile, while others have been criticised for losing their focus and sense of mission. Bitter rows have erupted among different factions of the overseas pro-democracy camp as they vie for influence and funding.

'The problem with any exiled opposition movement is that you are cut off from your bases where the action is supposed to be. It is difficult to exert influence, you're competing for support from foundations and you have the tendency for infighting - it's not a Chinese phenomenon,' Beja said.

But analysts also say Chen's case is different in many ways from that of previous dissidents who have gone into exile. He is not a dissident who has been granted asylum abroad and cannot return to China. The context in which Chen left China - to study in the US as opposed to seeking permanent refuge - gives him the flexibility, as least technically, to return.

On the day he was leaving China, Chen told the Sunday Morning Post that a government official had said his family could return 'any time'. Upon arrival in New York, Chen said again he planned to return and tactfully acknowledged the Chinese government's show of 'restraint and calm' in handling his case.

Sceptics doubt whether Chen, seen by the authorities as a troublemaker, will ever be allowed to return home, but Su Xiaokang , an intellectual who fled China after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, believes Chen's diplomatic tone as he landed in the US indicates that his ability to return is part of the agreement reached between Beijing and Washington.

Su, who is now based in the US, said Chen's case was a breakthrough compared to the old model for handling Chinese dissidents adopted by the US and China, and the agreement would put pressure on Beijing to honour its pledge to protect Chen's rights. Before he left, Chen said the central government promised to investigate local authorities' abuses against him and his family.

Su, who is unable to return to China himself, said: 'The Communist Party would only make a bit of change when it is pressured to do so. This is an unprecedented agreement between China and the US on a Chinese citizen's rights and security. It is a very good thing.'

Analysts also say dissidents nowadays are luckier than their predecessors 20 years ago because, thanks to the internet, they can still maintain a degree of influence.

Aids activist Wan Yanhai , who fled China two years ago, is now a visiting scholar in Canada but continues to lead his advocacy group, Aizhixing, through online communications. Other rights advocates who live in exile have also managed to advocate causes to the online community at home, even though the impact is less direct.

Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch said: 'We shouldn't operate from the pre-internet paradigm. [The internet] provides something that does not exist in China, that is, an echo chamber and a regular linking to the international community.

'It cannot be an alternative to a domestic human rights movement but it is playing an important role. I'm not sure people now fade away the way they faded before.'

Analysts also say Chen, who is under the counsel of Professor Jerome Cohen, a China legal expert, should be smart enough to avoid manipulation by others. Cohen, who has known Chen since 2003, advised Chen when he was in the US embassy in Beijing and offered him a fellowship to study law at New York University.

'Chen is aware that he has to be careful about the different demands that are put on him from different parties,' Bequelin said. 'His hope is that he can go back to China, I think he is trying not to burn bridges.

'One of his strengths as an icon of the rights movement is that they're looking for accommodation with the state, they're not trying to overthrow the political system, and this is proving a successful strategy so far.'

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