For Chinese dissidents, exile can mean irrelevancy

Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng and his wife Yuan Weijing arrive at an apartment complex in New York on Saturday.
Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng and his wife Yuan Weijing arrive at an apartment complex in New York on Saturday. Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. diplomats were relieved this weekend when China allowed a prominent dissident, Chen Guangcheng, to fly to New York with his family.

China, too, is presumably happy that Chen is no longer in the country doing his advocacy work. Chinese exiles tend to fade into obscurity when they leave the country, and Beijing might be counting on that to happen with Chen.

But social media may be changing this equation.

If Chen wants to stay relevant on human rights in China — he might want to learn a few things from Bob Fu — the man who helped arrange for Chen to speak by phone to Congress twice in recent weeks.

"If you want to continue to focus on your cause, you need to work harder, you need to improve your language instead of just focusing on your own little circle and enjoy Chinese food and Chinese talk in Chinatown," Fu says.

Fu certainly didn't spend time in Chinatown when he came to the U.S. 15 years ago. He's a pastor who preached in secret in China and quickly made inroads in the evangelical communities of Texas, where he lives and runs a group called ChinaAid.

"For me, it is important to interact with American people and pray together in English, not only in Chinese and with American churches," Fu says. "And really rally those who are concerned to support freedom and the rule of law in China."

Fu not only has political connections here — he says he has a lot of activists working with him in China to promote religious freedoms. For this story, he spoke by phone from Asia, where he says he's on another sensitive mission.

Reaching Out To Congress

Fu has also raised awareness on Capitol Hill. And that's one role exiles do play well, says Sophie Richardson, who covers Asia for Human Rights Watch.

"As the lines between inside and outside begin to blur, or are more easily surmounted by technology, physically being outside doesn't necessarily mean being out of the game," says Richardson, who spoke by phone from Hong Kong.

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. Chen, who is blind, was also standing up for the rights of the disabled. Still, Richardson says there are ways he can be effective in the U.S.

"He can, from the outside, educate people about how the Chinese legal system ought to work and how it often does work," she says. "He can certainly still be in touch with people to provide advice as to how to approach certain kind of cases or issues. And he'll become more of a symbol of the kind of change that's possible."

Hoping To Return To China

Chen, though, seems eager not to be just a symbol, but to eventually resume his work in China. Speaking through an interpreter on Saturday, Chen said he has received assurances from the Chinese government that — as he put it — his rights as a citizen will be protected.

"I believe that the promises of the central government are sincere and they are not lying to me," he said.

Returning to China, however, has rarely been an option. Richardson, of Human Rights Watch, points to the case of an exiled student leader, Wu'er Kaixi, who wants to return to China but couldn't even get in the door at the Chinese Embassy in Washington last week.

"There's something of a sigh of relief that Chen Guangcheng and his family have come to the U.S.," Richardson says. "But the far harder battle, as Wu'er Kaixi, shows us, is about going back."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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