Asia
4:36 pm
Sat May 5, 2012

For Dissidents, Escape Means Fighting From Afar

Originally published on Sat May 5, 2012 6:42 pm

The case of Chen Guancheng, the blind Chinese dissident who sought refuge at the U.S. embassy in Beijing last week, could soon be resolved.

Chen was released into Chinese custody earlier this week after six days at the embassy. He's now recovering at a Beijing hospital from injuries he suffered during his escape from house arrest.

U.S. and Chinese officials are working out an arrangement where Chen could soon depart for the U.S. on a student VISA. Chen's case has shined a light on China's human rights policy and the dissidents inside and out trying to change it.

During a congressional hearing on the case this week, Bob Fu, a prominent former Chinese dissident, testified on behalf of his friend Chen Guancheng.

Fu left China in 1996, after enduring years of torture and imprisonment for his role as a Christian leader and a student leader during the Tiananmen Square protests. He made his own dramatic escape from China and is now a pastor at Mid-Cities Community Church in Midland, Texas, and the founder of the human rights group ChinaAid.

Fu is banned from China for life, of course, and on Thursday, at that Congressional hearing, he made an appeal on behalf of Chen Guancheng and the thousands of other, lesser-known human rights activists in the country. Fu tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that even if Chen comes to the U.S., he feels his popularity will still allow him to play an important role in China.

"You can tell he is very popular even among the very ordinary Chinese people," Fu says. "I think that he can still ... with high technology and social media, play a very important role to at least carry out his mission to advance the rule of law in China."

Chen initially resisted seeking asylum in the U.S., and Fu says that's because, to the Chinese, the term is very indicting.

"Basically [it's] almost equal to treason," he says. "Nobody inside Chinese soil would publicly proclaim they want to seek asylum."

Fu says he hopes to one day return to China, and feels with the current grassroots movement there, he might get the chance.

Echoes Of The Past

The case of Chen Guancheng has drawn comparisons to a similar dilemma back in 1989.

Fang Lizhi was a prominent Chinese astrophysicist and dissident who would end up living inside the U.S. embassy in Beijing for a year, until U.S. officials successfully negotiated his exile to America in 1990.

Perry Link, an eminent China scholar, was living in China at the time as the Beijing director for the National Academy of Sciences. Months before Tiananmen Square, he met Fang Lizhi at a party and the two men hit it off and became friends.

About half a year later, in early June 1989, Link got an urgent call from Fang's son. Link tells NPR's Raz that it was the day the violent crackdown began, and when he arrived to their apartment, Fang's wife opened the door both angry and afraid.

"A wanted list of a dozen Chinese intellectuals was released by the government," Link says, "and her husband was number one on the list and she was number two."

Eventually, Link brought the couple to a hotel where he checked them in under his name. The next morning they drove to the U.S. embassy, where Link had to sneak the family past guards at the embassy that answered to the Chinese government.

Fang Lizhi, his wife and son would eventually stay inside the U.S. embassy for an entire year, in a basement apartment, while American diplomats negotiated a way for him to leave China.

China was under considerable pressure to allow Fang to leave because at the time, the U.S. linked its China trade policy to human rights. That is no longer the case today.

Link says, while Fang Lizhi wanted to leave, he understands why Chen Guancheng is more ambivalent.

"This was different in a sense ... because, in those days, to leave and go to the U.S. didn't seem to be leaving the Chinese democracy movement quite as clearly as it does now," Link says. "The record of the last decades shows that Chinese dissidents who leave China become irrelevant inside China."

For someone like Chen Guancheng, being relevant in China is very important because his whole career as a lawyer is there, Link says.

Fang Lizhi ended up teaching physics at the University of Arizona and continued to speak out against China's human rights violations. Just one month ago, at the age of 76, Fang died. Perry Link gave a eulogy at the memorial service.

For his role in helping Fang Lizhi find a safe haven at the U.S. embassy, Perry Link has been banned from China for life.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR News, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

The case of Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident who sought refuge at the U.S. embassy in Beijing last week, may soon be resolved. He was released into Chinese custody earlier this week after six days at the embassy. He's now at a Beijing hospital, recovering from injuries he suffered during the escape from house arrest.

Now, U.S. and Chinese officials are working out an arrangement where Chen could soon depart for the U.S. on a student visa. But the case of Chen has shined a light on China's human rights record, and the dissidents inside and out trying to change it. Our cover story today: the case of Chen Guangcheng and the delicate dance of U.S.-China relations. We begin with the latest on the case and NPR's Louisa Lim from Beijing.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Well, as far as we know, he's still in hospital surrounded by quite intense security. I mean, we know that China's given signs that it will allow him to leave, and we know he's been offered a visiting scholar position at NYU, but he still needs to get passports in order to leave. So we really have no idea when that will happen.

I mean, interestingly, he was visited yesterday in hospital by Chinese government officials, and they were from the central committee, so that's really the highest body of the Communist Party. And he gave them these detailed allegations of the kinds of abuses that he's been suffering at the hands of the local authorities. So on the one hand, it looks like they're paying attention to some of his claims, but on the other hand, he's still in hospital; access is still being denied to him.

It's very difficult to phone him. We don't know whether U.S. embassy staff are getting to see him. So we simply don't know a lot about what's happening to him, which is kind of ominous.

RAZ: What about the Chinese media reaction? What are they saying about the case?

LIM: Well, there was a very hostile editorial in the China Daily today, and it pointed out that very few people inside China know who Chen Guangcheng is, and it really hinted that he's being used by the U.S. And another paper, the Global Times, also said that the U.S. is using human rights as a political tool at the negotiating table. So it kind of looks like the start of a media campaign to demonize him as a political tool of the U.S.

But interestingly, if you look on the internet, reaction is completely different, and there's been a lot of sympathy for him on Weibo, which is the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, with people saying things like: I feel ashamed for the Chinese government; and another person posted today: Leave and don't come back. Nothing will change here.

RAZ: When can we expect - I mean, if he, in fact, does leave China, when can we expect that to happen?

LIM: The U.S. government has said they hope the Chinese government will process applications expeditiously. But his wife has said that they haven't even put in any passport applications yet. A legal scholar who's helping him has said he hopes that he could be in the U.S. in a month or two. But it just depends on whether the local government might put obstacles in his way.

RAZ: That's NPR's Louisa Lim in Beijing. Louisa, thanks.

LIM: Thank you.

RAZ: For years, Chen Guangcheng had resisted the idea of coming to the U.S. Now, he's changed his mind. This week, Bob Fu, a prominent former Chinese dissident, testified at a congressional hearing on behalf of his friend Chen Guancheng. Bob Fu left China in 1996 after enduring torture and imprisonment for his role as a student leader during the Tiananmen Square protests.

He made his own dramatic escape from China, and today works to support human rights campaigners who are still there. In the middle of that congressional hearing on Thursday, Bob Fu manage to reach Chen Guancheng at his hospital bed. And in a dramatic moment, he put him on speaker phone and translated.

CHEN GUANGCHENG: (Foreign language spoken)

BOB FU: I want to make the request to have my freedom of travel guaranteed because I am not a - the translation and sort of a - all he wants, to come to the U.S. for some time of rest. He has not have any rest in the past 10 years.

RAZ: Bob Fu says the members of Congress in that room were visibly moved.

FU: I could tell the eyes of Congressman Smith who chair the committee...

RAZ: Chris Smith from New Jersey.

FU: Yeah, Chris Smith from New Jersey. His eyes were filled with tears already, and Congressman Wolf was very touched.

RAZ: Frank Wolf.

FU: He was also on the side. Frank Wolf from Virginia. And I think they were basically very, very touched to hear in firsthand what Chen has to say. And they are also felt a sense of urgency to provide immediate help for Chen - to address Chen's safety issue.

RAZ: Tell me a little bit about Chen Guancheng because he, of course, has come to the attention of many American human rights activists, particularly Christian human rights activists, in part because of his exposure of forced abortions and sterilization in China. You, of course, are a pastor. Chen is not a Christian as far as I understand, right?

FU: That's right. That's amazing. I mean, basically, I think you can call Chen the rule of law advocate with maybe pro-life passion. Basically, he cherish, you know, these people's lives from the eyes of fundamental human rights and dignity and without religious, you know, perspective, per se.

RAZ: If Chen Guancheng arrives here to the U.S., what then? I mean, will he be able to have an impact on changing China's human rights policy if he is here in the U.S., or does that end? Is that over?

FU: Well, I think he still can play a very important role, especially given the popularity internationally. As we're talking, there are a number of Chinese netizens, Twitter. You can tell he is very popular among even the ordinary Chinese people. I think he can still, in this modern age, with the high technology, social media, play a very important role to at least carry out his mission to advance the rule of law in China.

RAZ: Why did Chen resist seeking asylum in the United States for so long? And he still does, and he's not asking for asylum. But why has he resisted that?

FU: Our Chinese mindset. This word asylum is very indicting, basically almost equal to treason. Nobody, I think, inside Chinese soil would publicly proclaim they want to seek asylum. Lots of them need protection, but they would not use this word asylum.

RAZ: Do you ever think that you will be able to go back to China in your lifetime?

FU: I do. I think the Chinese grassroots movement - I mean, every four minutes in China today, somewhere has a protest.

RAZ: Every four minutes?

FU: Yes. All the signs actually indicated China has been, I think, on a very historical moment of transition, and a transition that not necessarily the Chinese current regime likes, but the gradually, I think, have to accept.

RAZ: That's Bob Fu. He's a Chinese dissident who left in 1996. He's now a pastor at Mid-Cities Community Church in Midland, Texas, and the founder of the human rights group ChinaAid.

The case of Chen Guancheng has drawn comparisons to a similar dilemma back in 1989.

Fang Lizhi was a prominent Chinese astrophysicist and dissident who would end up living inside the U.S. embassy in Beijing for a year, until U.S. officials successfully negotiated his exile to America in 1990. Perry Link, an eminent China scholar, was living in China at the time. He was the Beijing director for the National Academy of Sciences. Months before Tiananmen Square, he met Fang Lizhi at a party. By that point, Fang was already well-known.

PERRY LINK: My first impressions of Fang were that he was surprisingly straightforward and simple. I'd met other famous writers and famous dissidents. I was expecting someone who have a kind of a presence or even a charisma.

RAZ: And the two men hit it off and became friends. And about half a year later, in early June 1989, Perry Link got an urgent call from Fang's son. It was the day the violent crackdown on the Tiananmen protesters began.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

RAZ: And when Link arrived to their apartment, Fang's wife opened the door.

LINK: She was very upset. She was quivering in rage and anger and fear because there had been this massacre. And a few hours later, a wanted list of about a couple of dozen Chinese intellectuals was announced by the government, and her husband was number one on the wanted list, and she was number two.

RAZ: Eventually, Perry Link brought the couple to a hotel where he checked them in under his own name. The next morning, they drove to the U.S. embassy.

LINK: And we got in a car and wended our way, I think is a good way to put it, across the city. Normally, it takes about 45 minutes for that trip. It took us about two hours because we had to go through back alleys to avoid the burning buses on the main streets. The one thing that I was worried about was how we would get through the door of the embassy.

Because normally, there's a guard there who answers to the Chinese government. And on this day, I thought there might be more than just one guard, and there were. There were three with machine guns when we got there.

RAZ: Bur miraculously, Perry Link managed to sneak them all into the compound past the guards. Fang Lizhi would eventually stay inside the U.S. embassy for an entire year while American diplomats negotiated a way for him to leave China.

LINK: They were in the basement apartment that had a couple of rooms. It had a kitchenette, had no windows. And he joked that he was the only astrophysicist in the world who couldn't look at the sky.

RAZ: China was under considerable pressure to allow Fang to leave because at the time, the U.S. linked its China trade policy to human rights. That is no longer the case today. And Perry Link says while Fang Lizhi wanted to leave, he understands why Chen Guancheng, the dissident now in the spotlight, is more ambivalent.

LINK: This was different in a sense from the Chen Guangcheng case that we're looking at now because, in those days, to leave and go to the U.S. didn't seem to be leaving the Chinese democracy movement quite as clearly as it does now. Now, the record of the last two decades shows that Chinese dissidents who leave China become irrelevant inside China. And for someone like Chen Guancheng, that's very important because his whole career as a lawyer is inside China.

RAZ: Fang Lizhi ended up teaching physics at the University of Arizona, and he continued to speak out against China's human rights violations. Just one month ago, at the age of 76, Fang died. Perry Link gave a eulogy at the memorial service. For his role in helping Fang Lizhi find a safe haven at the U.S. embassy, Perry Link has been banned from China for life.

And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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