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Politics & Current Affairs

China’s Gadfly: Chen Guangcheng and the Dissident’s Dilemma

The troubling chronicle of blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng has me thinking about the trial of another dissident who faced a life-changing dilemma of his own 2411 years ago in ancient Athens.

Chen, like Socrates, is a gadfly on the hide of his polity. Where Socrates was condemned for corrupting Athenian youngsters with his unorthodox teachings, Chen was imprisoned and held under house arrest for opposing women’s forced sterilizations and abortions associated with China’s one-child policy. Both were punished for relentlessly calling their societies’ norms into question.

But the two dissenters chose different paths in the wake of their verdicts. Socrates famously resisted his rich friend Crito’s offer to help him escape the death penalty and hitch a ride on a boat to nearby Thessaly. Speaking as the voice of the Laws of the Athens, Socrates told Crito it would be undignified and unjust to accept his help: fleeing would unilaterally break the deep bonds that exist between him and his polis.

Chen, on the other hand, threw himself over a fence, injured his foot and somehow eluded security agents while flinging himself into the protective arms of the U.S. embassy. After initially agreeing to a U.S.-brokered plan whereby China would allow him live safely as a law student in Tianjin, Chen panicked and reconsidered. Now it appears Chen will be permitted to leave China temporarily to study law at New York University.

Chen’s dramatic decision to escape his house imprisonment and negotiate at least a temporary exit from his native country puts a poignant spin on the wrenching dilemma he shares with Socrates and countless dissidents: what to do when the political society to which you are attached, in which you were raised and whose defects you want to repair treats you very, very badly.    

As dissident Wei Jingsheng wrote in the New York Times on Saturday, “No matter what he has decided, whether to stay in China or to leave, he has made both the right choice and the wrong choice.” This is Chen’s dilemma: all paths forward have unthinkably bad effects. To classify the dissident’s choices in Hirshman’s terms, “loyalty” would mean keeping quiet, muffling his principles and acquiescing to China’s assault on women’s reproductive freedom; “voice” endangers Chen and his family and subjects him to further surveillance, beatings and possible incarceration; “exit,” if it proves possible, severs his ties with his homeland and renders him impotent to help in the struggle against China’s human rights abuses.

So what is a dissident to do? Or, as the subtitle of Plato’s “Crito” asks, “What Is To Be Done”? Chen’s lawyer warns him that remaining in China would be dangerous. Wei Jingsheng, who endured 14 years of solitary confinement for his activism in the late 1970s and later came to the United States with the help of President Clinton, advises him to go into exile for his own safety. And Wang Dan, imprisoned after the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and brought to the United States in 1998, strongly recommends exile :

I hope that Chen Guangcheng knows that although a country’s democracy and human rights are of great importance, so are a family’s love and affection. If he stays in China he could be a heroic figure. But nobody has the right to require that his family pay the high price it would face. And if he chooses to leave now, no one has good reason to criticize him. He will not be giving up the fight. He may well be helping it more.

How could Chen advance his causing by leaving his homeland? Wang reasons that the Internet age makes exit and voice more compatible than they have ever been:

The Internet and globalization have changed the very concept of exile. They have eliminated the possibility of isolating Los Angeles (where I now live) from Beijing (my hometown), and Shandong Province (where Mr. Chen is from). My Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus followers number more than 80,000, and the vast majority of them are China activists in various parts of the world. Is this so different from staying? If I were in China under house arrest now, like Mr. Chen was for the past two years, I would have had to depend on the Internet for contact with the outside world anyway.

And yet there are strong reasons for Chen’s mixed emotions about leaving China. No matter how connected he could be to activists through social media sites, he will still be living in exile. Though his wife and two children will be protected while in the United States, Gillian Wong reports in the Detroit Free Press that he cannot be sure how his relatives who remain in China will be treated:

Authorities already have detained Chen’s elder brother, and his nephew is on the run after attacking local officials who raided his house apparently in search of Chen after his escape. Chen’s mother, who lived with the couple, has been under constant surveillance.

Even more troubling, the human rights community Chen leaves behind may suffer the repercussions of his escape, putting their lives and their cause in peril:

There are concerns China will exact retribution on Chen’s supporters who aided his escape, as well as friends. Two supporters who helped him escape were detained, then released, but placed under gag orders and close monitoring.

Others, such as Chen’s friend Zeng Jinyan, who — at great risk to herself — publicized Chen’s worries about leaving the embassy, have since been barred from speaking to the news media and placed under house arrest. Under similar restrictions is Teng Biao, a rights lawyer who repeatedly called Chen, imploring him to flee the country, then published a transcript of their phone conversations online.

“One guess is that they will learn a lesson from this experience and be stricter in guarding and monitoring similar key figures and take even harder measures against them,” said Mo Zhixu, a liberal-minded author and Chen supporter.

Chen and Socrates both have strong cultural, familial and emotional attachments to their respective polities. Both are prosecuted (and persecuted) for speaking their minds against nomoi they find unjust. For Socrates, an old man at 70 when life expectancies were around half that span, fleeing to Thessaly would have bought a few more years at the cost of his dignity and his philosophic way of life. For Chen, a youthful 40-year-old who still has some hope that he might help his country change for the better during his lifetime, the decision to accept a modified exit from his homeland — rather than remain a prisoner in his own home — may be his best move among a tragic set of options.

Photo credit: AJstream/

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

Thanks to Jennet Kirkpatrick of the University of Michigan, whose rich essay-in-progress “Exit Through Athens: The Argument Against Exit in the Crito” got me thinking along these lines this week. If Chen actually makes it to the United States, his move would look a lot like the “attached exit” Jennet describes in her piece: he would remain a Chinese citizen and he would continue to push for constructive change in his home country with the hope of one day returning. Whether China will permit his return is another question.


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