It is not difficult to predict that the United States will see a continuing flow of Chinese dissidents seeking protection in this country.
Not too long ago, statements critical of China’s authoritarian leadership were shared furtively via brief printings, in small groups behind darkened windows or with language committed to memory. Now, technology is making it possible to reach thousands and tens of thousands, if only briefly, before moving from one Internet or Twitter address to another to stay a step ahead of the authorities.
Far more criticism is possible now and will be possible in the future, taking advantage of electronic communication that allows dissidents to make their claims and to keep their followers informed about the inevitable succession of successes and setbacks, including physical harm and fears for their own safety.
But, while we can expect more dissidents in the coming months and years to involve the U.S. in their desire to leave China, no case may present more challenges to U.S. leaders than did the case of Chen Guangcheng, last week. Chen is a dissident who had been imprisoned and who had escaped from a long house arrest and travelled some 300 miles to a United States embassy, all just before the arrival of the U.S. secretary of state for the beginning of major U.S.-China discussions about strategic and economic issues. Neither party, especially the U.S., wanted media attention about Chen’s predicament to detract from what are always important yet difficult conversations. Then, with Chen’s future thought to be resolved, it suddenly looked as though the secretary of state would be leaving China without the certainty that the situation demanded: Chen, and the Chinese leadership, had decided they preferred that he and his family leave the country. The guise would be that he would receive an expedited student visa and become associated with a New York law school.
Chen Guangcheng and his family would no longer continue to fear for their physical condition – a very real fear considering what his wife and he had been subjected to – and Chinese authorities would be free of a critic who had been energizing Chinese with his accusations against the government and with his personal plight, thanks to the brutality practiced by the Chinese government. Chinese authorities have learned that dissidents living abroad are not nearly as effective critics.
To depict the developments in the Chen case, Hollywood would have put a bomb and a clock on a runaway bus.
Chinese authorities face a losing battle in preventing challenges to their secretive, one-party system that ignores the individual. More dissidents can be expected to challenge the status quo, and more of them will find their way to the United States.
We welcome Chen Guangcheng and his family to the U.S. and praise them for their bravery.