Chen Guangcheng Begins Life in New York

At The Daily Beast, Melinda Liu described the beginning of Chen Guangcheng and his family’s life in New York as they embraced the spring sunshine while avoiding, for now, the glare of the media.

Feeling the warm sun on his face, blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng relaxed in an outdoor playground with his family Sunday, basking in perfect spring weather—and not having to worry about being beaten or harassed for the first time in years.

Chen, his wife, Yuan Weijing, and their two kids started a new life in a quiet, leafy Greenwich Village neighborhood full of university students sunbathing in grassy parks and yuppies walking their dogs. It’s a long way from their rural Shandong farmhouse—a virtual prison with blocked-up windows, surveillance cameras, and dozens of guards who threatened and beat would-be visitors ….

A TV-satellite truck has materialized outside Chen’s apartment block, which has also been staked out by reporters and photographers who scrambled when he appeared in the playground. (“It’s exciting. I’ve never heard so many police sirens as I did last night,” said one of Chen’s new neighbors about his arrival in the building.) But Chen didn’t want to grant media interviews on their first day in America. He and his wife are especially concerned about protecting the privacy of their 10-year-old son, Chen Kerui—who’d lived separately from his parents for several years so his father’s imprisonment and harassment wouldn’t disrupt his schooling—and their vivacious 6-year-old daughter, Chen Kesi, who succumbed to her jet lag by early evening. “She was fast asleep on the couch when I first arrived,” said one visitor, “but then she woke up and greeted me full of giggles.”

Speaking to WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, Jerome Cohen explained Chen’s likely course of study at New York University, his long term ambitions, and the negotiation process that brought the family to the US. Cohen also tactfully addressed the risk of Chen becoming a political pinball, and the question of how neatly his work against forced abortion and sterilisation might fit an American pro-life agenda. Chen, he said, “understands China’s need for birth control”, and was concerned primarily with civil liberties. “I don’t think,” he added, “we should associate Mr. Chen with one specific religious organization or with one particular political cause, however important it is.”

Giving his own views on China’s future direction, Cohen said that he is “very optimistic” for the long term and “fairly optimistic” for the medium term, but “quite pessimistic” about the immediate future.

Chen’s studies could begin as soon as next week, according to the South China Morning Post. How long they will continue, however, is unknown.

While in New York, Chen will study Chinese, American and international law. Lectures will be given in Chinese since Chen does not speak English. The programme was scheduled to last a year, but could go longer if necessary, Cohen said. “His study will probably begin next week or the week after,” Cohen said. “We will see when he is ready. There is no rush ….”

Cohen said Chen understood that few activists had had much success trying to influence domestic reform after leaving the country.

Nonetheless, Cohen said he believed Chen had a good chance of returning should he focus on legislation to protect the disabled. He noted that more Chinese activists had been pressing for legal reforms without being jailed, such as civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang .

The Guardian’s Tania Branigan reported that Chen may return to China in as little as a year:

The couple … will not be working towards degrees, [Cohen] added. “Maybe he’ll go back to China quickly at the end of the year, if things look good,” Cohen said. “Initially he’s going to put in a year of serious study and he’ll feel his way.”

Chen has said he wants to return to China at some point, although some activists and dissidents who have left have not been allowed back into the country. “The Chinese government has a long history of preventing the return of critics who have been abroad,” warned Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“Some parties involved in the negotiations are fairly confident Chen will be able to return … [But] it is not entirely clear what will happen.”

Another article at The Guardian illustrated what may be the worst case scenario, reporting the efforts of several Tiananmen-era dissidents to secure a safe return to China. They include student leader Wang Dan, who recently welcomed Chen to America and assured him that exile, thanks to the Internet, no longer imposed the same limitations as in the past.

It’s been almost 23 years since the optimism that gripped China during the seven-week Tiananmen protests was brutally swept away. Now, five exiled Tiananmen leaders have written an open letter calling on Beijing to allow them to return home in the spirit of human rights at a time when “China is undergoing profound changes”.

“I want to be able to visit my parents,” said Wang Dan in an email. “The Chinese government not allowing us to return is another continuous punishment ….”

While a number of dissidents have returned to China, the permission to do so comes attached with stipulations that most dissidents refuse to accept.

Xiang Xiaoji, now a lawyer in New York, explains: “I will never apologise for anything. What I did was right, and I will never promise to stop pushing for democracy in China. I will not accept their political conditions to return home,” Xiang says. “Besides, I’m not scared of a jail sentence. I’ve been in exile for 23 years, and I’m 55 now. I’ve never regretted what I did in the past, so why would I be scared of what I’ll do in the future?”

At TIME’s Global Spin blog, on the other hand, Austin Ramzy raised the possibility that media coverage of Chen’s saga, regardless of its tone, has sown the seeds of an influence that could weather a wintry exile:

… Chen is still not … widely known in China, but the past month’s coverage in domestic media has raised his profile. While many Chinese readers will agree with criticism of the U.S. role in protecting Chen for six days after he escaped from house arrest, they will also be curious to learn more about who he is. And his story is as compelling as the role of officials in Shandong is troubling. Even before Chen’s escape from house arrest, there was a grassroots effort to support him, and average citizens like former English teacher He Peirong found themselves drawn to his cause.

Earlier this spring I interviewed a migrant worker about a strike at the electronics factory where he was employed in Shenzhen. At the end of our discussion he said he knew that TIME had once interviewed the blind lawyer. “Blind lawyer?” I asked, shocked that a factory worker would know about a man who had been under one form of arrest or another since 2005. “Yes, you know, the blind lawyer Chen,” he replied, adding that he had been inspired by him and closely followed his case …. Chen’s influence may, as State media suggest, diminish during his exile. But not if they keep talking about him.

Also uncertain are the broader implications and lessons of Chen’s case. From the Associated Press:

Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, doubted that Chen’s case would start a trend. She pointed to exceptional factors — Chen is blind and had broken bones when he sought US help, while China was eager to ensure smooth talks with Clinton ….

But Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch said that — even if it is unlikely that droves of dissidents will seek shelter at the US embassy — the Chen case showed activists inside China the possibilities of pushing the government.

“I have trouble imagining that people who will have watched this saga unfold won’t in some ways feel empowered by it,” she said ….

Sharon Hom, executive director of Hong Kong- and New York-based group Human Rights in China, said the Chen case did not give simple answers on whether quiet or loud diplomacy works best with China as many factors — from international attention to Chinese netizen activism — had been factors.

At The Atlantic, James Fallows suggested that one lesson was not to rush too quickly to judgement based on incomplete information.

… [L]ooking back on the evolution of the administration’s foreign policy, I contended in my long story about Obama early this year that U.S. positioning toward China was actually one of the more chessmaster-like features of Obama’s overall policy. That is, love the current administration or hate it, you really should consider China-handling one of the more successful parts of its record ….

[The Chen Guangcheng] episode has so far turned out better than it easily might have. And the State Department and White House negotiators on the U.S. side, whatever mistakes or misjudgments they may have made, appear to have been something other than the feckless clowns portrayed in the first wave of press coverage, based on the question of whether they had sold Chen Guangcheng out.

… We naturally crave “what does it all mean?” “who screwed up?” “who won and lost?” certainty, but there are times when the immediately available answers to those questions are likely to be wrong. In our little part of our journo-sphere we will try to do our part by taking this lesson to heart.