The Western media describes my friend and colleague Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) as a blind activist who made a flight to freedom when China allowed him to journey from Beijing to the US. What is actually essential about Chen is neither his blindness nor his family’s visit to the US, but the fact that he upholds a vision of universal human rights, a vision that can be fully realized only when, and if, China honors its promise to allow him to return home one day.
China has a history of forcing academics and dissidents like us into exile. When the Chinese student movement broke out in 1989, I was pursuing a doctorate in mathematics at the University of California-Berkeley. I traveled to Beijing to participate as an activist in Tiananmen Square, where I narrowly escaped the massacre and was able to make my way back to the US.
However, due to my activism, China refused to renew my passport. So when I returned to China in 2002 to help the movement for workers’ rights, I used a friend’s passport. The Chinese authorities incarcerated me as a political prisoner for five years, until 2007. For a year-and-a-half of that period, I was held in solitary confinement, without access to visitors, reading materials or even paper and pen.
Upon my release, China renewed my passport on the condition that I return to the US. I have tried three times to return to my homeland, only to be blocked at each attempt at the Hong Kong airport.
Chen’s case serves as a reminder that those who want to support Chinese activists’ struggle for human rights must support our right to enter and leave China freely.
It also confirms that China’s top leaders can be moved when the international community, led by the US, puts specific cases like Chen’s on the table. China’s leaders directed negotiators to resolve the issue before the arrival of US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, because she could be counted on to raise the issue in full view of the world’s media. This naming and shaming approach can be more effective than most observers think.
Human rights need not take a back seat to doing business with China. As a case in point, many Western observers thought that Norway’s trade relations with China would be undermined when Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) was invited to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in December 2010. China complained loudly, refused to allow Liu to collect the prize, and even threatened Norway with financial repercussions. However, that same month, one of China’s largest oil companies signed a drilling contract with Norway’s Statoil, clearly signaling that diplomatic tensions would not stop business.
Western diplomats who negotiate with China should call lower-level officials’ bluffs, and focus on the signal-to-noise ratio, bearing in mind that decisions are ultimately taken quietly at a higher level by pragmatic leaders who are susceptible to international pressure. After all, economic growth remains the Chinese regime’s best hope to keep itself in power and it is the main criterion for officials’ promotion through the ranks, so the last thing that officials at any level want to do is jeopardize international trade.
The strong commitment of US President Barack Obama’s administration in supporting Chen made a difference in the outcome of his case, and it will make a difference in other cases too. The voices for human rights in China have reason to express gratitude to Clinton, US Ambassador to Beijing Gary Locke, US House Speaker John Boehner, US Representatives Chris Smith, Frank Wolf, Nancy Pelosi, Jim McGovern and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and to the many Chinese citizens who spoke out for Chen.