Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) is set to arrive in Taipei tomorrow for a 20-day visit, which is plenty of time for Beijing to get riled up about something during his stay. Chen’s visit will provide an opportunity for Taiwanese to reflect on the freedom and rights that they enjoy and what risks lie ahead in the rapid progression of closer cross-strait ties. He should be welcomed with open arms.
For Taiwanese, Chen will be a visible reminder of the extent to which Chinese officials will go to harass, intimidate and silence critics; and that Beijing’s promises cannot be trusted.
Pan-green and pan-blue lawmakers have found themselves in uncommon agreement over the issue of visitation rights to Taiwanese detained or imprisoned in China. Until Beijing is willing to guarantee visitation rights for Taiwanese officials stationed in China, they do not want the government to sign any kind of deal on opening up cross-strait representative offices. The kind of illegal detainment and abuse Chen has suffered at the hands of village and provincial authorities — and that his family members continue to suffer — is clear evidence that Taiwanese visitation rights in China should remain a deal-breaker.
Before Chen left the US embassy in Beijing, where he sought refuge in April last year, Chinese authorities promised then-US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton that they would investigate reports of extra-legal activities against him and his family. Instead, his nephew was arrested and imprisoned after a three-hour trial for defending himself against the thugs who invaded his home, beating up his father and himself. Other relatives have been told that they too will face charges.
There is no doubt that the abuse of his family is designed to pressure Chen to give up on his criticism of China’s human rights abuses. Such actions show that Beijing cares more about intimidating its opponents than keeping its promises.
Chen’s visit to Taiwan, long in the works, is important for another reason: It comes at a time of uncertainty for him and his family, days after he made headlines because of controversies over his stay in New York and allegations of spyware surveillance. The Chens have been living in New York City since May last year, after he was given a research fellowship at the New York University Law School. The fellowship ends this month and where Chen will go next is apparently still under discussion.
His recent complaint that the university was forcing him out because of pressure from China has been rejected both by a school spokesman and Jerome Cohen, a law professor at the school who helped arrange Chen’s study there.
However, Chen’s comment on Monday that Beijing has been waging an “unrelenting” campaign against academic freedom echoes previous criticism that foreign universities have laid themselves open to pressure from Beijing by allowing the establishment of China’s Confucius Institutes on their campuses and the ever-deepening network of ties with Chinese institutions.
China is a major source of foreign students, whom cash-starved universities around the world are eager to snap up. In Taiwan, private universities have proven themselves just as eager to fill desks, as Taiwanese student numbers decline due to the nation’s falling birthrate. This growing thirst for Chinese students means that schools could become increasingly wary of doing something that might offend Beijing, prompting it to curb the outflow of students. This is something that few schools in Taiwan, or government officials, appear to have given much consideration to. They clearly should.
Taiwan’s government has trumpeted its many cross-strait agreements with Beijing, but these deals rely more on China’s goodwill than legal niceties. Chen is living proof that neither Beijing’s goodwill nor its legal system can be relied upon.