TAIPEI, Taiwan — It seems blind activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng is on his way from being a mere brutally repressed dissident to being a full-blown political exile.
But while his immediate safety, and that of his wife, looks to be assured, other dissidents who have been in his shoes caution him about the difficult road ahead.
Be careful what you wish for, is the general sentiment among a group of prominent Tiananmen protest leaders — who were either exiled in US-brokered deals following lengthy prison terms or escaped the country following the army-led massacre in 1989.
From experience, they say, once you leave China, it’s pretty tough to get back in.
“I haven’t been able to go home in over 20 years. Not only can I not go home but the Chinese government has made it impossible for my parents to go abroad by denying them passports. I haven’t seen my parents or my family for nearly 23 years,” said Wu’er Kaixi, who is still technically China’s most wanted man for his role in the largely student-led Tiananmen demonstrations that pushed for continued economic reforms.
The 1989 protests shaped the modern Chinese political landscape more than any other event since Mao Zedong made his darkly ironic birth of a nation declaration at Tiananmen Square in 1949.
Officially, China calls the Tiananmen protests a “counterrevolutionary riot” instigated “by a small clique of bad elements.” There has never been a public inquiry and much of what happened has been erased from the collective consciousness of the country. Internet searches of "Tiananmen" and "June 4" are blocked within China, and there is virtually nothing in the country’s schoolbooks about the incident.
“It’s inhumane. It’s as simple as that. No modern civilized country should have exiles of its own people,” said Wu’er, who escaped to Hong Kong in Operation Yellowbird and now lives in Taipei. The 51-year-old investment fund manager, and others, say Beijing “monitors, restricts” and harasses family members left behind as a form of continuous punishment.
The case of Chen Guangcheng appears to reflect these statements. Chen first won international acclaim for fighting for the rights of women forced into sterilizations under China’s One Child Policy. The self-taught lawyer's legend grew when he made a daring escape from house arrest, evading a squadron of plainclothes thugs.
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Since then, he has voiced concern that his family and friends are being targeted in “reprisal attacks.”
According to media reports, Chen's nephew has already been charged with “intentional homicide” after intruders broke into the family home looking to mete out retribution for Chen’s midnight flight to Beijing nearly a month ago. Three of the intruders were injured, none of them critically. Chen's wife, Yuan Weijing, was detained by police and tied to a chair without food or drink for two days. He Peirong, the friend who drove Chen from his hometown to Beijing, was arrested and held for several days.
A lawyer who tried to visit Chen in the hospital was taken away by police and roughed up. Guo Yushan, the activist who helped Chen hide, was also held by police for two days before being freed.
The government's tactics leave exiles with difficult choices. Consider Wang Juntao, who was first imprisoned in the 1970s for pushing for reforms at the tender of age of 17, and who participated in all four pro-democracy movements since the end of the Maoist era. After being sentenced to 13 years in prison for his role as “a black hand” or mastermind of the Tiananmen protests, he was exiled for “medical reasons” in a deal brokered by former US President Bill Clinton’s administration.
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Why would these exiles want to return to their oppressive homeland? Wang says that the Confucian value of filial piety compels him to return home despite the risks.
“My parents are old and ill, and I worry that I won’t have the chance to see them again," he said in a recent Skype interview. “But they won’t allow us to return because of the political arrangement among the regime. They wouldn’t allow it, even secretly because they don’t want anyone to think that there has been a change in thinking by default.”
Wang lives in New Jersey with his daughter and still pushes for reform within the Middle Kingdom as co-chairman of the China Democracy Party.
Nobody knows exactly how many people China has turned into political exiles, but rights groups estimate that they easily number in the thousands. Rights groups say that for every well known dissident — like Chen, artist Ai Weiwei and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, himself a Tiananmen protester — there are many more unknown political adversaries languishing in prison. There is no way of knowing for sure how many people are locked up for "endangering state security," a charge that replaced "counterrevolution" in the Communist penal code in the late '90s.
A few former exiles have made it back by providing public apologies for past actions and guarantees that they will steer clear of politics in the future. Wang Juntao's ex-wife is one example. She now works as a hedge-fund manager in Beijing.
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Xiang Xiao-Ji, who was also exiled for his participation in the Tiananmen protests and is now a lawyer in New York, said apologizing shouldn't be a pre-condition for his return.
“My family hasn’t been able to visit me," he told GlobalPost. "I’m not optimistic that I can return. But if I could, I should be allowed to without any pre-set conditions. Some exiles have promised to stop activities abroad that are deemed as being against the government. But I’ll never apologize. For what? What I did was right.”
Chen has not officially asked for political asylum in the US, but the chances of the Communist Party allowing him to return once his studies are completed at New York University are slim. Insiders say he’s become a political liability to the Communist Party and too much of a risk to be allowed home.
It won’t be smooth sailing for Chen in the US. He speaks halting English and will have few friends to call upon.
Exiles report the transition being difficult no matter what. Years of persecution, beatings and imprisonment can cause anxiety, paranoia and the inability to socialize. Some exiles experience severe mental health problems.
“It’s a mixed picture when you speak to exiles. It’s extremely difficult to make that transition. In Chen’s case he’s being ripped from his culture and everything he knows. Initially there is a lot of support for them and they’re often fettered as heroes. But that wanes after a few weeks and they’re left to their own devices,” said Sarah Schafer, East Asia researcher at Amnesty International.
“But I wouldn’t underestimate him. He’s a blind man who taught himself law in a country that doesn’t allow the blind to go to college. He then used that knowledge to fight the government to the point that they locked him. And he’s escaped not once but twice from that containment.”