Chen Guangcheng’s Road Ahead

Chen Guangcheng, the blind civil rights activist who escaped to the US embassy in Beijing is now in safety in New York.  The Chinese authorities might hope that he will slink into obscurity far away from home. Will he still find ways to make his voice heard?

It is worth taking a look at the stories of those who came before him. The outcry over Chen’s fate brought many of them back to the public eye. Last week’s hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China seemed like a class reunion of famous dissidents – and it was an illustration of how differently their lives have played out.

There was Chai Ling, a student leader on Tian’anmen Square in 1989. She was 24 years old when she fled China. She studied in Princeton and Harvard, set up an IT company and set politics aside until she started her own China-related non-profit. All Girls Allowed is dedicated to exposing the human-rights violations committed in the name of China’s one-child policy. It is the same cause as Chen Guangcheng’s, who had irked China’s authorities with his fight against forced abortions. An accomplished businesswoman at 46, Ms. Chai read her testimony with confidence and in fluent English.

At the same witness table sat Wei Jingsheng, the former electrician who had been active in the Democracy Wall movement in Beijing in 1979. Wei, now 62, relied on the help of his assistant to read his English testimony. When he gained his freedom after 18 years in prison, he was one year older than Ms. Chai is today. He did not have the opportunity to reinvent himself. He runs his own democracy foundation and is otherwise rarely heard of.

Most activists have chosen a model closer to Chai Ling’s if they had the resources to do so. A self-taught lawyer of 41 years, Chen could go either way. It will be hard for him to learn English and catch up with a formal legal education in the U.S. But Chen might find ways to continue his activism – with the help of organizations like Ms. Chai’s as well as the new media, despite the obstacle of censorship in China.

The U.S. is still a promising base for exiled Chinese activists. Apart from Congress, a number of religious groups  promote their causes, such as the “China Aid Association” run by the Texas-based Pastor Bob Fu. He served as his intermediary in the  Congressional hearings to which Mr. Chen spoke via cell phone from China.

No such networks exist in Europe where Chinese democracy activists have all but disappeared from public view (with the exception of Falun Gong and Tibetan rights groups). As a journalist in Frankfurt more than 11 years ago, I interviewed Xiu Haitao, then Chairman of the Federation for a Democratic China. Back then, the group organized regular protests and events. But Xiu estimates that there are not more than 50 active members left today. He himself left the group  in 2003. He wanted to travel to China, meet with parents and friends. “It’s a different stage in my life”, he told me when I called him to discuss the Chen Guangcheng case.

So far, Germany has not had a case as complicated as Chen’s. But there is one famous activist  who could change all that. The world-famous artist Ai Weiwei has accepted an invitation to be a lecturer at Berlin’s University of the Arts. It is unlikely that China will let him leave the country any time soon. But should the opportunity arise, Ai has said that he would love to set up a workplace in Berlin.

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