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For Dissidents, Escape Means Fighting From Afar

This undated handout image provided by ChinaAid shows Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng, whose escape from house arrest spurred a delicate dance of U.S.-China relations.
This undated handout image provided by ChinaAid shows Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng, whose escape from house arrest spurred a delicate dance of U.S.-China relations.

The case of Chen Guancheng, the blind Chinese dissident who sought refuge at the U.S. embassy in Beijing last week, could soon be resolved.

Chen was released into Chinese custody earlier this week after six days at the embassy. He's now recovering at a Beijing hospital from injuries he suffered during his escape from house arrest.

U.S. and Chinese officials are working out an arrangement where Chen could soon depart for the U.S. on a student VISA. Chen's case has shined a light on China's human rights policy and the dissidents inside and out trying to change it.

During a congressional hearing on the case this week, Bob Fu, a prominent former Chinese dissident, testified on behalf of his friend Chen Guancheng.

Fu left China in 1996, after enduring years of torture and imprisonment for his role as a Christian leader and a student leader during the Tiananmen Square protests. He made his own dramatic escape from China and is now a pastor at Mid-Cities Community Church in Midland, Texas, and the founder of the human rights group ChinaAid.

Fu is banned from China for life, of course, and on Thursday, at that Congressional hearing, he made an appeal on behalf of Chen Guancheng and the thousands of other, lesser-known human rights activists in the country. Fu tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that even if Chen comes to the U.S., he feels his popularity will still allow him to play an important role in China.

"You can tell he is very popular even among the very ordinary Chinese people," Fu says. "I think that he can still ... with high technology and social media, play a very important role to at least carry out his mission to advance the rule of law in China."

Chen initially resisted seeking asylum in the U.S., and Fu says that's because, to the Chinese, the term is very indicting.

"Basically [it's] almost equal to treason," he says. "Nobody inside Chinese soil would publicly proclaim they want to seek asylum."

Fu says he hopes to one day return to China, and feels with the current grassroots movement there, he might get the chance.

Echoes Of The Past

The case of Chen Guancheng has drawn comparisons to a similar dilemma back in 1989.

Fang Lizhi was a prominent Chinese astrophysicist and dissident who would end up living inside the U.S. embassy in Beijing for a year, until U.S. officials successfully negotiated his exile to America in 1990.

Perry Link, an eminent China scholar, was living in China at the time as the Beijing director for the National Academy of Sciences. Months before Tiananmen Square, he met Fang Lizhi at a party and the two men hit it off and became friends.

About half a year later, in early June 1989, Link got an urgent call from Fang's son. Link tells NPR's Raz that it was the day the violent crackdown began, and when he arrived to their apartment, Fang's wife opened the door both angry and afraid.

"A wanted list of a dozen Chinese intellectuals was released by the government," Link says, "and her husband was number one on the list and she was number two."

Eventually, Link brought the couple to a hotel where he checked them in under his name. The next morning they drove to the U.S. embassy, where Link had to sneak the family past guards at the embassy that answered to the Chinese government.

Fang Lizhi, his wife and son would eventually stay inside the U.S. embassy for an entire year, in a basement apartment, while American diplomats negotiated a way for him to leave China.

China was under considerable pressure to allow Fang to leave because at the time, the U.S. linked its China trade policy to human rights. That is no longer the case today.

Link says, while Fang Lizhi wanted to leave, he understands why Chen Guancheng is more ambivalent.

"This was different in a sense ... because, in those days, to leave and go to the U.S. didn't seem to be leaving the Chinese democracy movement quite as clearly as it does now," Link says. "The record of the last decades shows that Chinese dissidents who leave China become irrelevant inside China."

For someone like Chen Guancheng, being relevant in China is very important because his whole career as a lawyer is there, Link says.

Fang Lizhi ended up teaching physics at the University of Arizona and continued to speak out against China's human rights violations. Just one month ago, at the age of 76, Fang died. Perry Link gave a eulogy at the memorial service.

For his role in helping Fang Lizhi find a safe haven at the U.S. embassy, Perry Link has been banned from China for life.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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