And now the waiting game is on. Before leaving Beijing on May 5, visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave positive indications that Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng might be allowed by his homeland to go to the U.S to study. The blind activist, whose dramatic six-day sheltering in the U.S. embassy captured global headlines, had escaped extralegal house arrest on April 22 by scaling over walls and limping on for hours in his native Shandong province. On May 2, Chen emerged from American custody and checked into a Beijing hospital because of an agreement with the Chinese side that would allow him to live life as a normal Chinese citizen and even attend a Chinese university to study law. (As a blind man in China, Chen was unable to formally study law when he was at university.) The deal would have given Chen a life far different from the years of abuse he and his family have endured at the hands of local officials in Shandong.
But the promise of freedom appeared short-lived. Chen is now enduring virtual imprisonment by Chinese forces at the hospital, where he is being treated for the injuries he sustained during his escape from his guarded farmhouse. American diplomats have not been able to meet him face to face since Wednesday, save a short confab in which they largely discussed his health issues, which include a broken foot and stomach problems. As a result of the treatment and counsel he has received since leaving the U.S. embassy, which has included harsh warnings from Chinese officials, Chen reversed the stance he held during Sino-American negotiations that he had wanted to stay in China and continue his legal work on behalf of China’s downtrodden. Now the man who has spent seven years in detention — prison on trumped-up charges, an extralegal house arrest punctuated by vicious beatings and now confinement in a hospital where staff do not allow his friends to visit — wants to go and “rest” in the U.S., where he has been offered a fellowship to study law.
Before leaving Beijing, where she was conducting annual talks on economic and other issues, Clinton had hinted that such a plan might be feasible. On May 4, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland seemed to go one step further, sending an even more optimistic message: “The United States government expects that the Chinese government will expeditiously process his applications for these [travel] documents.” Hours before, the Chinese Foreign Ministry had piped in, releasing a statement that Chen, like any other Chinese citizen, had the right to apply to study abroad — a potentially hopeful if ambiguous wording. On Sunday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said the U.S. was ready to give Chen a visa “right away.” The activist, who earned local authorities’ ire for exposing a horrific campaign of forced abortions and sterilizations in the Linyi region of Shandong, is clearly a special case.
So what now? Chen, now reunited with his wife and two children in Beijing and expecting to go abroad with them, must wait to see if the Chinese will let him go. In the meantime, a number of Chen’s lawyers and sympathizers who tried to visit him at the hospital have been beaten up or dragged away. Others who played a part in his escape and flight to the U.S. embassy are now under house arrest; even activists whose apparent crime was speaking to him by phone after his departure from the embassy face similar restrictions. Around 20 foreign journalists who tried to access him at the hospital have been summoned by Chinese Public Security Bureau officials and told that, should they try to visit him again, their visas will be revoked. With a once-a-decade leadership transition expected in China in the fall, a crackdown on dissidents and other freethinkers was already gathering force. Even if Chen and his immediate family are allowed to go to America, China will likely continue to tighten the screws.
If Chen does successfully go abroad, he may not be allowed to go back to China again, even if there is no talk of formal exile at the moment. For Beijing, the best outcome for an activist who has been a thorn in the country’s side for years could be to tacitly allow his influence to wane overseas. Although principled dissidents — like Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan, who was once called Enemy No. 1 by Beijing — have escaped to America, their ability to dictate events back home has diminished with each year of exile. Recently, Wang, a gentle academic who has not compromised on his commitment to democracy, tried to apply for a visa to return home. There’s little chance of success in his quest.
Nevertheless, this is the digital age, and it’s not as easy for a dissident to fade into obscurity with the Internet connecting people in unprecedented ways. One of the people who have been instrumental in publicizing Chen’s case and who even testified in front of Congress on May 3 on his behalf is a Chinese-born pastor, Bob Fu, who now lives in exile in Texas after enduring religious discrimination back home. He, like many other Chinese activists fated to live overseas, is hardly a spent force.
When Chen sought refuge in the U.S. embassy, he said he wanted to stay in China and use the legal system on behalf of the country’s masses, who know little about their rights. It was a noble goal. But there is little chance that the government will allow the activist to truly work as a human-rights lawyer — even if Beijing were to make good on its promise to allow Chen to study law at a Chinese university. The bravest lawyers in China face the continuous threat of detention for their work. As such a high-profile activist, Chen would surely be similarly constrained. Between a fate of exile in the U.S. or potential confinement in China, Chen has no perfect choices. And in the meantime, all the world can do is wait for China to give the word on whether Chen and his family can leave: tomorrow or next week or next month.