Several Chinese dissidents who left their country for the United States scorned the deal struck over escaped activist Chen Guangcheng this week, complaining the U.S. had failed to flex its muscle to protect the blind dissident who sought refuge in its Beijing embassy.
“The Chinese government knew the Americans were soft from the very beginning,” said Wei Jingsheng, a Chinese democracy activist who spent more than 17 years in Chinese prisons before his negotiated release to the U.S. He now lives in Washington, D.C. “They’re more concerned about economic interests than about human rights.”
Wei contended the U.S. had failed to put any real pressure on China, instead settling for a promise without any way of enforcing it. “If the U.S. government had stated from the beginning, ‘If the handling of Mr. Chen is improper, we will cancel the trade talks,’ that would be very different,” Wei said.
Chen, a 40-year-old attorney, took refuge for six days in the U.S. embassy after a stunning escape from house arrest, then left for a Beijing hospital after the U.S. and China reached an agreement that American officials said was designed to protect Chen and his family.
Chen now says he left the American embassy because his family was threatened and that he now wants to leave China. The blind dissident had been jailed for years and then placed under house arrest after exposing forced sterilizations and other government abuses.
The agreement came under fire from human rights groups and dissidents only hours after it had been struck, once Chen told reporters that he feared for his life. The U.S. has been accused of rushing the deal to smooth relations with China ahead of a “strategic and economic dialogue” starting Thursday. The Chen case, critics say, could hurt President Obama as he goes up for reelection, as Mitt Romney argues he would take a tougher tack on Chinese human rights abuses.
“If it was President Reagan or President Bush, it is very likely that they would have given Chen greater support,” said Yu Jie, a dissident writer who left China in January. “But Obama and [Hillary] Clinton appeared very weak.... I do not think that Chen is any safer now.”
This is the second time this year that news has spread of a Chinese citizen going to American authorities to seek help: In February a police official went to a U.S. consulate seeking protection after making accusations against politician Bo Xilai. He left and was reportedly taken into Chinese custody.
Another exiled dissident, Rebiya Kadeer, said the U.S. should have brought economic pressure to bear, perhaps by threatening to raise import taxes. Kadeer, who leads the movement to protect the rights of the Uyghur minority, said other imperiled activists will see his case as a warning.
“You saw what happened to Chen with all of this international attention; even he couldn’t be rescued,” Kadeer said."They will lose some hope."
For Chinese activists who had once faced the same choice as Chen on whether to leave China -- or been forced to leave without a choice at all -- his story of threats and abuse endured by his family was all too familiar.
Kadeer said even after she had been released to the U.S., Chinese police forced her grandchild to call her to hear the screams of her son being beaten. Two of her sons are still in prison in China. Others are shut out of jobs, kept under surveillance, frequently interrogated and beaten, Kadeer said.
"They say, 'Your ideas have been poisoned by Ms. Kadeer,' " she said in a phone interview from Washington, her voice rising in agitation. " 'Are you still supporting her?' "
Dissidents also sympathize with the difficulty of deciding whether to stay in China or try to keep fighting for their causes abroad. As a writer, Yu struggled with the idea of leaving the land of his mother tongue. Wei was pressured by fellow activists who argued he would be more effective in China to stay.
“Chen is facing the same decision I had to make back then,” Wei said. “We all love our homeland very much. But if I had stayed in China, I would be in jail.”
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: A Sept. 29, 2009, file photo shows Chinese human rights activist Wei Jingsheng testifying before the House's Human Rights Commission in Washington, D.C. Credit: Mandel Ngan / AFP-Getty Images