The Incredible Shrinking Chen

December 10, 2012 Topic: Civil SocietySociety Region: China

The Incredible Shrinking Chen

Nobody can fault him for leaving, but like other exiles the Chinese dissident's influence back home is fading. 

In a recent Foreign Policy interview, Chen Guangcheng elaborated on a number of well-worn topics, including his own detention and his views on the future of China. But when I finished reading, I was left with only one question: Who is Chen Guangcheng again?

It has now been more than six months since Chen, China’s much celebrated blind lawyer dissident, fled his native Shandong province for the safety of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing—and ultimately the United States itself.

In the immediate aftermath, western media coverage of Chen was all but hagiographic. Indeed, the story of a blind Chinese lawyer unlawfully imprisoned and beaten for exposing heinous crimes and his dramatic flight to the United States was an irresistible one. But amidst the fawning, an uncomfortable fact has now come to the fore. As Mr. Chen continues to settle into his plush new life as a professional dissident and radical chic fixture at New York University, it has become abundantly clear that his ability to work for change in China has been extinguished.

Chen Guangcheng is an extremely estimable human being whose dedication and courage is beyond question. During an extraordinary career in China as a self-taught lawyer and human rights activist, Chen fought tirelessly on behalf of peasants and the downtrodden, and was subject to routine abuses and degradations. In his book Out of Mao’s Shadow, the journalist Philip Pan devoted an illuminating chapter to Chen: forced abortions and sterilization, all in the name of enforcing China’s one-child policy, were not uncommon amongst the citizens of Shandong. In his efforts to curb these horrors, Chen Guangcheng endured prison, torture and all manner of debasement.

In a system long known for rewarding ends and not means, local officials throughout the country face enormous pressure from the top to meet arbitrary quotas and benchmarks. Since 1979, the year the one-child policy was adopted, this has also included “birth-planning targets.” Careers depend on success. It should come as no surprise that Li Qun, Chen’s principal antagonist over the last decade and the man responsible for many of Shandong’s abuses, has had a meteoric career. From his beginnings as a party thug in small Linyi County, he now bestrides the powerful Standing Committee of Shandong and is one of the most powerful officials in the province.

Chen Guangcheng’s decision to leave China for the United States undoubtedly ensured a better life for both him and his family. Indeed, from any rational self-interested standpoint, it would seem lunacy for Chen to have considered staying in China. Yet throughout his career, Chen Guangcheng consistently eschewed his own interests and routinely invited great hardship upon himself. When Chen took refuge at the U.S. embassy, his initial intention was to stay in China and continue his fight for justice and the rule of law. His decision to “study abroad” likely came under pressure from the U.S. government looking to find a face-saving solution that would preserve the Sino-American relationship. Chen accepted only reluctantly and under the belief that he would be able to be as relevant in the United States as he was in China. Unfortunately, it takes only a cursory study of history to see that this belief was always chimera.

Consider another recent struggle against tyranny: Poland in 1989. There, it was the unrelenting efforts of Lech Walesa and Solidarity that toppled an insidious regime. Walesa was willing to lead from the front. Repeatedly arrested and jailed, he personally bore the full brunt of all the trials of the Polish people. His towering stature and moral authority made him a natural choice as Poland’s first democratically elected president. Today, few remember Ryszard Kaczorowski, the last president of Poland’s government in exile. From his comfortable perch in London, Kaczorowski’s calls for change rang hollow.

For an example that hits a little closer to home, take the Dalai Lama. After his flight from Tibet in 1959, he became a bestselling author, professor and Nobel Laureate. Yet despite the enormous attention and condemnation he has brought to the People’s Republic, Tibet today is no closer to achieving independence than it was fifty years ago. As in Poland, the domestic scene trumps all, and I suspect that China’s current leaders are far more concerned with burning monks in Tibet and Western Sichuan than pronouncements from Dharamsala, India, the seat of the current Tibetan Government in Exile.

And the list goes on: Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Aung Sun Suu Kyi are but a few other examples which clearly demonstrate that in effecting change, locality matters.

In a naive New York Times op-ed that ran shortly before Chen left China, Wang Dan, a leader of the Tiananmen protests, claimed that since his escape to the United States, his influence has been undiminished. Dan boasted over eighty thousand followers on Twitter, Facebook and Google+, as well as “tens of thousands” on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. However, Twitter, Facebook and Google+ are completely blocked by China’s “Great Firewall” and inaccessible to most Chinese people. As for Weibo, Mr. Wang cannot even operate under his own name since the site is subject to government censorship. His tens of thousands of followers may seem large, but China is a big country, and followings in the tens or even hundreds of thousands are not uncommon for even the outermost ephemera of Chinese pop culture.

From any rational perspective, Chen Guangcheng’s departure from China was the only option. No one has any right to say he should have stayed and continued to endure such unspeakable personal hardship. But a sober corrective to the panglossian coverage that has thus far shrouded his story is in order.

Chen Guangcheng may be trying to continue his struggle from the United States. But if history is any guide, the actual work of Chinese reform has now fallen to others.

Jonathan Levine is a lecturer of American Studies and English at Tsinghua University in Beijing and a contributing analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group. You can follow him on Twitter at @LevineJonathan.