There has been a lot written about Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, the blind ‘barefoot’ lawyer, who after sitting in prison or house arrest for advocating to change the way China forces abortion and sterilization to implement its one child policy.
It is difficult to understand whether Mr. Chen coming to the US as a student is a victory or not, or rather for whom it is a victory. Mr. Chen was clear from the outset that he had no desire to leave China. He wanted to live free of intimidation and continue to advocate for what he believes in.
The US, once again the lone voice in a human rights dispute, seemed more embarrassed than anything else. The fact that Mr. Chen forced his move while Hilary Clinton was on a high-profile visit was an obvious tactical move.
It seems as though the winner might actually be China, who might feel that they have off loaded another angry activist, destined after a few weeks of interviews and media attention to be buried under the next latest news item – and all this during an election year.
Part of me can’t help wondering whether the Chinese didn’t architect all this from the beginning. China excels in surveillance and strong-armed tactics. How does a blind man escape house arrest, avoid security and make his way to the one place in China where there are probably more cameras and surveillance than anywhere else in that country.
Chinese dissidents have a hard time in the US. There was a great article earlier this month, but I can’t find it here about these challenges. An ABC article offers some light on this, but there are a number of cold realities that these dissidents face.
Many of these men and women do not hold qualifications that enable them to enter the job market. There is a foundation that helps them financially. For a proud leader, however, this cannot be an empowering experience.
Often, they did not want to leave China, or at the risk of being clichéd, have left their hearts and family there. They risked their lives to change China, not live in the US. And they are faced with never being able to return.
While their short-lived celebrity status might garner a speaker tour during the first year, they are often not articulate in English and can’t sustain the speaker tour necessity to receive invites back the following year. The tough personalities that such brave people need in a totalitarian state might be difficult to process in the West.
Finally, their ability to influence what is happening in China is extremely limited. The world-wide web isn’t quite as world-wide as we would like to think. Hopefully these dissidents helped train their successors and, with thousands of miles and Chinese surveillance between them, they will find that their positions in the human rights organizations have been replaced.
China has discovered an effective way to neutralize a freedom activist. Send them to freedom and see how they like it there. And all along, the US has been a compliant if unknowing partner.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).