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China: Sparking the ‘Exile is Not Freedom’ Debate

This post is part of our International Relations & Security coverage.

On 27 April, 2012 blind Chinese lawyer and activist, Chen Guangcheng, escaped from a remote village surrounded by security forces in the middle of the night. International media widely covered the story, and the events turned out to be a diplomatic headache for both the Chinese and American governments, which were getting ready for their annual summit in Beijing.

Since Chen ran towards freedom, it made sense that he sought refuge at the American Embassy. While at the embassy, however, Chen made a surprising statement: he did not want to leave China, nor did he want asylum. If Chen was a headache for the US, so was the US for Chen.

“More Glorious than the Sun” by Crazy Crab of Hexie Farm for China Digital Times.

Chen Guangcheng: “Premier Wen, I have three requests!”
Uncle Sam: “Wait, wait! Give me a promise!”
Wen Jiabao: “Trust me! Fairness and justice are more glorious than the sun.”
‘More Glorious than the Sun’ by Hexie Farm's Crazy Crab for China Digital Times.

Debate sparks

Chen’s case has reignited a discussion about the pros and cons of exile that has been going on since the aftermath of the Tiannamen protests: Will Chen lose support and influence if he leaves China? And will the government let him come back after flirting with the US?

When he escaped, Chen was an internationally well-known activist. More importantly, he was kind of a hero [en, zh] in the eyes of civic-minded Chinese social media enthusiasts. Despite censorship, comments [en, zh] on Chen flooded both global and Chinese social media.

Support at stake

Roy Berman, from the Mutantfrog blog, argues:

But while it does seem likely that Chen has widespread support, I wonder what good that will do for him in America, other than provide a comfortable life for him and his family. For example, look at how much support the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei received after his own unjust arrest. […] But how contingent is that support on the fact that he is staying to fight? [...]

It is hard to imagine how Chen Guangcheng, whose activism so far has largely taken the form of legal action [...], would be able to continue his activism in any substantial way after reaching NYU.

M-Bone replies:

Another question is: “Would he even be allowed to do anything ‘hands on’ in China at this point?”

Chen has been performing a delicate balancing act, to be considered a legal citizen in China while [still] ensuring his safety. Awkward as it may look, Chen asked the Chinese government to investigate the “illegal harm” local officials had infringed on him.  Along the same lines, he accepted a legitimate way out when he realized neither him nor his family would be safe in China: leaving for a while to study at the US, “just like any other Chinese citizen,” as the government stated.

Tom, from the Seeing Red in China blog, writes:

Chen Guangcheng would never call himself a dissident; he might hesitate to even describe himself an activist. […] he is a man who simply thinks that the laws on paper should be enforced.

The government's promise

The Sinocism blog discusses Chen's studying abroad option:

This outcome appears to be the best one possible under the current circumstances, and probably the preferred (or orchestrated?) one for the Chinese government, as nothing seems to hasten a Chinese dissident’s descent into irrelevancy faster than an exile abroad.

Actually, Chen’s credibility may have been already damaged by his decision to seek refuge at the US Embassy. Official media, as if to counter support showed on social media, have been attacking him. The Global Times wrote:

Unfortunately, when trying to attract the international spotlight by being violently against the government, Chen became a political pawn and was used as a tool to work against China's political system by some Western forces.

Chen, however, seems to believe the government’s promises:

Let's not make assumptions. I think we can see that the central government is letting me go to the U.S. to study. That is unprecedented, regardless of what they did in the past. As long as they're beginning to move in the right direction, we should [encourage] it.

Whether the Chinese government will allow Chen to come back or not, remains to be seen. As Chinese dissident in exile Yang Jianli states, “exile is not freedom. For Chen, as for myself, the true flight to freedom will be made with a return ticket home.”

ISN logoThis post and its translations to Spanish, Arabic and French were commissioned by the International Security Network (ISN) as part of a partnership to seek out citizen voices on international relations and security issues worldwide. This post was first published on the ISN blog, see similar stories here.

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