For an authoritarian regime, there’s no tidier way to get rid of an opponent than exile. It’s better than prison, or house arrest, or even murder. When an outspoken critic is sent packing, he loses most of his punch. He can no longer easily organize others to rally against the regime and its crimes. While he may still rail against his former tormentors, his words lose their bite when they are lobbed from so many miles away. We may all welcome the fact that the dissident is safe from the regime, but it is also true that the regime is now safe from the dissident.
Chen Guangcheng undoubtedly knows this. That is probably in part why the blind Chinese lawyer and human rights activist, according to U.S. officials, insisted on remaining in China—not seeking asylum—as he remained holed up in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. (Update, May 3, 2012: The U.S. State Department has confirmed Chen Guangcheng has now expressed a desire to leave China.) Chen is among one of the bravest and most determined of the so-called “rights lawyers” in China today. At a time when the Chinese Communist Party’s crackdown on dissent has reached new highs, a small number of lawyers—maybe no more than a few dozen—have become China’s most visible human rights defenders. In 2006, Chen was imprisoned for exposing the government’s widespread use of forced abortions and sterilizations in eastern China. He, his wife, and other family members have been repeatedly beaten and assaulted. For the past 19 months, he and his wife have been kept under unofficial house arrest, forbidden any visitors by armed thugs who circled their rural village of Dongshigu.
Last month, on a pitch dark night, the blind Chen made a daring escape, scaling a wall and making the nearly 400-mile trip from his farmhouse in Shandong province to Beijing. Under circumstances that are still unknown, Chen managed to gain entry into the U.S. Embassy, a temporary safe haven. For the last several days, ahead of a major U.S.-China diplomatic summit in Beijing, government negotiators from both sides tried to reach an agreement about Chen’s future. Early on Wednesday, it appeared a deal had been struck that would allow Chen to remain in China and take up his studies at a university far removed from his former captors. According to U.S. officials, Chinese authorities had offered strong assurances that Chen and his family would not be harmed.
That deal may now be falling apart. Chen has told the Associated Press that he agreed to leave the U.S. Embassy because he was told that Chinese officials had threatened to beat his wife to death if he remained there. Britain’s Channel 4 news quoted Chen appearing concerned that no U.S. diplomats remained with him at the hospital. “Nobody from the [U.S.] Embassy is here. I don’t understand why. They promised to be here,” Chen told the British reporter. Teng Biao, Chen’s attorney and himself a well-known human rights advocate, told the Washington Post that Chen fears for his safety. “I can tell that the decision to leave the embassy was not 100 percent his idea,” says Teng.
U.S. officials are adamant that Chen left of his own accord, that he never asked for political asylum, and that they did not speak to him about possible abuse to his wife or children. It is impossible to know yet if Chen has come under new threats, if the Chinese side is reneging on some of its assurances, or if Chen has just had second thoughts after seeing his family. But he may end up seeking exile after all.
There’s no question he is under pressure to leave, says Yang Jianli. Yang is the founder and president of Initiatives for China. He was a Chinese political prisoner from 2002 until 2007, when he was released and exiled to the United States. Yang didn’t have to serve his full five-year term. “I was offered an early release, but it came with a precondition: I had to leave China right away.”
Yang turned down the offer. “I insisted that I had every right to stay in China. I warned the Chinese government that if they put me on a plane I would not enter the United States,” says Yang. He served nearly 12 more months in his jail cell. Ultimately, a deal was reached. “I made the government officially admit that I was a Chinese citizen by issuing me a passport.”
Yang doesn’t know what precise pressures Chen is under at this moment, but he thinks he has a good idea. “They will try to convince him to leave China. That’s the result they’d like to see. It all depends on Chen’s will.”
If Chen does find himself on an outbound flight, he will hardly be the first Chinese dissident to make that choice. A long string of Chinese political activists—people like Fang Lizhi, Xu Wenli, Wei Jingsheng, Wang Dan, and others—have opted for exile in the past 20-odd years. At one point, in the late 1990s, Northwest Airlines’ direct flight from Beijing to Detroit—then the only nonstop flight connecting China and the United States—was jokingly referred to as the “dissident express.”
No one could fault Chen for choosing exile, especially if the regime were to allow him to bring his family with him. (“On a personal level, I’d like to see him come to the U.S.,” says Yang, “because he has been suffering so much.”) Few can imagine what he has endured. But there’s no question it would be more powerful if he were able to follow his first instinct and stay. He would be the most watched man in China—someone who’s every word or action was followed by NGOs, international media, and regime minders alike. His presence would be a daily reminder of the limits of Beijing’s reach. Even if he were no longer the vocal critic he once was—which would be unlikely—he would be a living example of someone who negotiated his own terms with the Chinese government. It would be an incredible precedent, empowering to a growing number of his fellow Chinese citizens who now know the name “Chen Guangcheng.” Which is why we can be sure that the Chinese government is working furiously to ensure that he soon boards a flight for a destination far away.