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After Leaving U.S. Custody, What’s Next for Chinese Dissident Chen?

May 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
After Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. Embassy in Beijing Wednesday, the Chinese dissident said he left under duress. Jeffrey Brown, Xiao Qiang of The China Digital Times and The New Yorker's Evan Osnos discuss the blind activist's unclear fate and how his saga has affected U.S.-China relations.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And we take a closer look now at this still unfolding story with Xiao Qiang, director of the Berkeley-China Internet Project at U.C. Berkeley and editor of The China Digital Times, an online publication, and Evan Osnos, who’s written on Chen Guangcheng and other dissidents as the China correspondent for The New Yorker magazine. He joins us tonight from the campus of Stanford University.

Evan Osnos, I will start with you.

What do you make of this very confusing series of events today? Is there any way to unravel what’s known at this point?

EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: Well, it’s been an extraordinary 24 hours. This story is very dynamic.

A few hours ago, frankly, all of us thought that the U.S. government and the Chinese side had reached perhaps the best available solution given the moment, which was to create an opportunity for Chen Guangcheng to get out, move on with his life, perhaps in a new city with his family and out of the persecution of this local government.

What we now see, of course, is a dramatic turnaround. Chen, who we have to remember has been under extraordinary pressure — for seven years, he’s been in and out of jail and house arrest, and now he’s been put into the position of having to negotiate and be in the center of this very complex negotiation.

So he has come out and made statements that, obviously, stunned U.S. officials. And I think it’s going to be several hours, perhaps a couple of days, before we know exactly what this deal includes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Xiao Qiang, I know you’ve been monitoring Chinese media and the Internet. Can you glean anything from that?

XIAO QIANG, director, Berkeley China Internet Project, U.C. Berkeley: Well, in your introduction line, you already mentioned the hospital name is now a banned search word in Chinese cyberspace.

But far more than just hospital name, in the past week, there are over dozens of the Chinese words or combination of words, from — starting from blind man, to even Chen Guangcheng’s surname, Chen, which is one of the most police surnames in China, sometimes being singularly banned to prevent the large numbers of Chinese denizens to discuss or express their opinions about this in Chinese — according to Chinese authorities, domestic issues.

So the level of censorship and preventing the Chinese society to be aware of a such dramatic event itself to show how important this to the Chinese authorities is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Evan Osnos, I know you followed this for a long time and you went to try to visit Chen in his village where he was held.

There, it were local authorities holding him. Now we have the Chinese government itself apparently giving some assurances to U.S authorities. What do you make of that? What does it say about either who is in charge or the state of play in China?

EVAN OSNOS: Well, this is one of the things about Chen’s case that has been so interesting and so confusing for a number of years.

If you go back to 2005, which is when he first really became prominent in the Western imagination and to most of Chinese — the Chinese public, that was a time when he was challenging his local government on the way that they were enforcing the one-child policy.

And he’d really gotten himself into a conflict with this local government. And I went down to try to visit his house. A lot of journalists, later activists — and in fact Christian Bale most recently when he was in China filming a movie went down to try to visit his house.

And his case has become iconic. It had become not just about a conflict with the local government, but in fact about the very nature of dissent and what was worthwhile, what was important and why a person would fight this hard.

So his case had become more than just a local issue. And the central government, whether it wanted to or not, ultimately had to take a position on whether or not it would help Chen Guangcheng get out of this very difficult situation. Ultimately, the local government was never going to, it seemed, allow him out of house arrest.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Xiao Qiang, another — the other part of what happened today is the U.S. authorities describing more detail of their help to Chen to get into the embassy and basically, for the first time, admitting that they had — they — that they had him there.

And then you had the Chinese foreign minister coming out and demanding an apology. Now, what do you read into the Chinese response?

XIAO QIANG: Well, let me start from a little bit of my personal encounter with Mr. Chen Guangcheng and his wife back to seven years ago, when he was visiting the United States, my Berkeley campus.

I was very impressed by his intelligence, courage, and incredible conscience and dedication for what he does and who he is. For someone like that, when he returned back to China, engaging in his simple commitment to help others through the law, and then the suffering he had been through, which now we are all familiar with through the media, both in China and outside of China, actually, is some strong indicator of how the Chinese society has become.

It’s far more than just local authorities’ misbehaving conduct, because over the years, he already became an international known figure. Without a central authority’s permission, or even directive, the local authority dare not to treat him that way.

Therefore, now, when he is in such a situation, supposedly receiving some promises from the Chinese authorities in the highest level, it’s all in question. Now come back to what you ask me, the Chinese government demanding the U.S. for apology.

The first question I would say is that why the Chinese government ask itself that their own official and their own citizen, starting from a police chief in the major city, to a blind activist, when their life in danger, they seek refuge only in the entire China to the U.S. Embassy.

And what make the Chinese government lack its confidence — its people’s confidence, including their own official? And people like Chen Guangcheng at this point is his safety to stay in the home in the own homeland to pursue his — what he believes in as a free citizen. That’s all what’s important about. But there’s no way we can see the Chinese authority can deliver that promise.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, So, Evan Osnos, starting with you on this, the clear question now is whether the U.S. involvement in this, the very public nature of this case, might offer some promise or hope that Chen wouldn’t be persecuted.

EVAN OSNOS: Well, that has been the goal.

But for years, frankly, people have said that Chen Guangcheng’s case has become so big, it’s become so important, that it seems almost impossible that the Chinese government wouldn’t want to seek a solution. And that’s been one of the things that’s confusing about it.

I think Xiao Qiang is absolutely right that, at a certain point, it became clear that this case could not have gone on as long as it has been without on some level the knowledge of the central government. They must have known that there was — that this case was continuing and that they were going to have to intervene to bring it to an end.

Now, of course, it’s become an international case. And the United States, in allowing Chen out of the embassy, has essentially staked its name to protecting him and his family. Part of the agreement was that the United States would continue to monitor him and his family in the months and years ahead.

And that hasn’t changed. That’s one of the things we know to be true, is that whether or not Chen Guangcheng stays in China or goes abroad, the United States made a choice, which was to help him exit the embassy. And now the question will be how to make sure that he stays safe and that the Chinese government, whether it’s local or central, doesn’t go back to persecuting him.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Xiao Qiang, just very briefly, if you would, there are other people involved in this, of course, friends of his who helped him with this escape. What is known about them at this point?

XIAO QIANG: Well, that’s right.

There was incredible, brave and conscious behavior by Chen Guangcheng’s friends and volunteer activists who assisted him during the escape and supported him before — while he was in house arrest and even now. And some of them are in arrest or house arrest, and under prosecution.

Some of them, we don’t even know where they’re about. In this general environment, there’s no reason we can believe that Chen Guangcheng by himself alone can be safe.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Xiao Qiang and Evan Osnos, thank you both very much.

EVAN OSNOS: Sure.