Chen Guangcheng Comes to U.S., But is He Now Irrelevant?


On May 19, Chen Guangcheng and his family arrived at New York University after a 13-hour flight to a slew of reporters. 

Chen was on crutches and supported by his wife and Professor Jerome Cohen, but had a smile when he addressed the media: "I am very gratified to see that the Chinese government has been dealing with situation with restraint and calm," he said to Reuters. "I hope the government will be more liberal and push for deeper reform to keep the justice and equality of society and earn the respect and trust of its people."

Ben Rhodes of the National Security Council commented, "We welcome this development and the fact that he will be able to pursue a course of study here in the United States upon his arrival."

Earlier this month, Chen, fearing for the safety of his wife and children after his escape from house arrest, requested that he and his family be allowed to leave China for the United States. The Foreign Ministry in China allowed Chen to leave the country after NYU gave him a fellowship to study law at the institution. The move was seen as an easing of Sino-U.S. relations because the dissidents’ influence diminishes greatly after they leave the country. Many become irrelevant and are generally forgotten by the people and the media. 

The fate of exiled dissidents was the main subject of discussion on NPR's May 21st edition of All Things Considered. In the interview, activist Bob Fu told NPR correspondent Michele Keleman that "If you want to continue to focus on your cause, you need to work harder and you need to improve your language instead of just to focus on your own little circle and enjoy the Chinese food and Chinese talk in Chinatown." Fu was instrumental in helping Chen escape and arranging for Chen to speak to Congress. A pastor and the founder of ChinaAid, a non-governmental organization based in Midland, Texas, Fu says that he currently has many activists helping him promote religious freedoms in China.

Chen's access to the network of Bob Fu may be what maintains his relevancy despite being halfway across the world from his locus of influence. Although social media has served as very effective tools for activist organization, it will be difficult for Chen to continue his work without being in China. As Kelemen remarks, "The work Chen was doing in China is hard to replicate from afar. He was bringing legal challenges to fight the practice of forced abortions and Chen, who's blind, was also standing up for the rights of the disabled."

Moreover, Chen's relationship with the Chinese legal system is based not only on his campaign for human rights. His nephew Chen Kegui, the son of his brother Chen Guangfu, has been charged with intentional homicide after fending off with a kitchen knife local officials who had broken into his home.  Lawyers set to represent Chen Kegui have been detained, harassed and one even had his license revoked. In an interview with Reuters, Chen Guangcheng said, "My older brother escapes house arrest and comes to Beijing in search of a lawyer for my nephew. This is an extremely normal thing, and the most basic right of a Chinese citizen. If even this right cannot be ensured then I think development in the construction of China's legal system over the past few decades has already been undone by law-breaking officials within the political system." Chen Guangfu has been reported missing since his arrival in Beijing on Wednesday. 

Another famous dissident has also suffered as a result of his advocacy for human rights in China, but, unlike Chen, has not sought refuge in another country. In interviews over the last couple of months, artist Ai Weiwei revealed that he had been detained back in April, 2011 for 81 days and subsequently interrogated, threatened and beaten by the police for his open criticism of the ruling Communist Party. This brings to mind the treatment the United States exhibits toward suspects of state subversion in facilities such as Guantanamo Bay. Ai was eventually released by authorities when he promised to sign a document stipulating that he owed back taxes. 

However, Chen does not see his visit to the U.S, as long-term exile. "The agreement between China and the U.S., and the promise that I got from the Chinese government for the protection of my rights as a citizen won't disappear because I left China." He stated that he has not sought asylum since he intends to go back to China to continue his cause. 

Despite uncertainty concerning his return to China and the work that lie ahead, Chen remains optimistic. "No matter what happens, I feel very good about the future. There is no way to compare this with my life before. Before I had faith that everything would get better, and the present has proved this was right."