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Mon May 21, 2012
World

For Chinese Dissidents, Exile Can Mean Irrelevancy

Originally published on Mon May 21, 2012 7:21 pm

U.S. diplomats were relieved this weekend when China allowed a prominent dissident, Chen Guangcheng, to fly to New York with his family.

China, too, is presumably happy that Chen is no longer in the country doing his advocacy work. Chinese exiles tend to fade into obscurity when they leave the country, and Beijing might be counting on that to happen with Chen.

But social media may be changing this equation.

If Chen wants to stay relevant on human rights in China, he might want to learn a few things from Bob Fu, the man who helped arrange for Chen to speak by phone to Congress twice in recent weeks.

"If you want to continue to focus on your cause, you need to work harder, you need to improve your language instead of just focusing on your own little circle and enjoy Chinese food and Chinese talk in Chinatown," Fu says.

Fu certainly didn't spend time in Chinatown when he came to the U.S. 15 years ago. He's a pastor who preached in secret in China and quickly made inroads in the evangelical communities of Texas, where he lives and runs a group called ChinaAid.

"For me, it is important to interact with American people and pray together in English, not only in Chinese and with American churches," Fu says. "And really rally those who are concerned to support freedom and the rule of law in China."

Fu not only has political connections here — he says he has a lot of activists working with him in China to promote religious freedoms. For this story, he spoke by phone from Asia, where he says he's on another sensitive mission.

Reaching Out To Congress

Fu has also raised awareness on Capitol Hill. And that's one role exiles do play well, says Sophie Richardson, who covers Asia for Human Rights Watch.

"As the lines between inside and outside begin to blur, or are more easily surmounted by technology, physically being outside doesn't necessarily mean being out of the game," says Richardson, who spoke by phone from Hong Kong.

The work Chen was doing in China is hard to replicate from afar.

He was bringing legal challenges to fight the practice of forced abortions. Chen, who is blind, was also standing up for the rights of the disabled. Still, Richardson says there are ways he can be effective in the U.S.

"He can, from the outside, educate people about how the Chinese legal system ought to work and how it often does work," she says. "He can certainly still be in touch with people to provide advice as to how to approach certain kind of cases or issues. And he'll become more of a symbol of the kind of change that's possible."

Hoping To Return To China

Chen, though, seems eager not to be just a symbol, but to eventually resume his work in China. Speaking through an interpreter on Saturday, Chen said he has received assurances from the Chinese government that — as he put it — his rights as a citizen will be protected.

"I believe that the promises of the central government are sincere and they are not lying to me," he said.

Returning to China, however, has rarely been an option. Richardson, of Human Rights Watch, points to the case of an exiled student leader, Wu'er Kaixi, who wants to return to China but couldn't even get in the door at the Chinese Embassy in Washington last week.

"There's something of a sigh of relief that Chen Guangcheng and his family have come to the U.S.," Richardson says. "But the far harder battle, as Wu'er Kaixi, shows us, is about going back."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

U.S. diplomats were relieved this weekend when China allowed a prominent dissident to fly to New York with his family. China too might be happy to have Chen Guangcheng out of the country. Chinese exiles tend to fade into obscurity when they leave, and Beijing is likely counting on that to happen this time too. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on what it means to be an activist outside of China looking in.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: If Chen wants to stay relevant on human rights in China, he might want to learn a few tips from Bob Fu, the man who arranged for Chen to speak to Congress twice in recent weeks.

BOB FU: If you want to continue to focus on your cause, you need to work harder and you need to improve your language instead of just to focus on your own little circle and enjoy the Chinese food and Chinese talk and in Chinatown.

KELEMEN: Fu certainly didn't spend time in Chinatown when he came to the U.S. 15 years ago. He's a pastor who preached in secret in China and has made inroads in the evangelical communities of Texas, where he lives and runs a nongovernmental group called ChinaAid.

FU: For me, it's important to interact with American people and pray together - in English, not only in Chinese - with the American churches and we rally those who are concerned to support the freedom and the rule of law in China.

KELEMEN: Fu not only has political connections here. He says he has lots of activists working with him in China to promote religious freedoms. He spoke to us by phone from Asia, where he says he's on another sensitive mission.

FU: And every village or every house church that we have helped, it always results with more freedom.

KELEMEN: Fu also has raised awareness on Capitol Hill and that's one role exiles do play well, says Sophie Richardson, who covers Asia for Human Rights Watch.

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: As the lines between the inside and outside begin to blur or, you know, are more easily surmounted by technology, physically being outside doesn't necessarily mean being out of the game.

KELEMEN: The work Chen was doing in China is hard to replicate from afar. He was bringing legal challenges to fight the practice of forced abortions and Chen, who's blind, was also standing up for the rights of the disabled.

Still, Richardson, who spoke to us from Hong Kong, says there are ways he can be affective in the U.S.

RICHARDSON: He can, from the outside, you know, educate people about how the Chinese legal system ought to work and how it often does work. He can certainly still be in touch with people and provide advice about how to approach certain kinds of cases or issues. And I think he'll become more of a symbol to people of the kind of change that's possible.

KELEMEN: Chen, though, seems eager not to be just a symbol, but to eventually resume his work in China. Speaking through an interpreter Saturday, Chen said he had received assurances from the Chinese government that, as he put it, his rights as a citizen will be protected.

CHEN GUANGCHENG: (Through translator) I believe that the promise from the central government is sincere and they are not lying to me.

KELEMEN: Returning, though, has rarely been an option. Richardson of Human Rights Watch points to the case of an exiled student leader, Wu'er Kaixi, who wants to return to China, but couldn't even get into the door at the Chinese Embassy in Washington last week.

RICHARDSON: You know, there's something of a sigh of relief that Chen Guangcheng and his family have come to the U.S., but I think the far harder battle, as Wu'er Kaixi shows us, is about going back.

KELEMEN: And she's not making any bets about Chen's chances of that. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.