When Xu Wenli lived in China, the government deemed him a menace. A founder of a branch of the China Democracy Party and a leader in the 1979-1981 Democracy Wall movement, Xu served 16 years in prison for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Chinese government.
Then, in 2002, he received political asylum and arrived on Christmas Eve in a New York City wrapped in snow.
A decade later, he speaks little English. Every spring he teaches a dozen or more advanced Chinese-language students at Brown University. He has twice organized meetings of the China Democracy Party, once at the University of Maryland and once at the Hope Club in Providence, R.I. Each time, about 30 people attended.
The fate of exiled Chinese dissidents like Xu could prove instructive for Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer who escaped effective house arrest last week and is believed to have taken refuge in a U.S. Embassy building in Beijing. Though Chen has told friends he wants to remain in China, political asylum in the United States seems a likely outcome, China experts say.
President Obama declined to comment directly about Chen on Monday. But he said that “every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up,” adding that it was not only “the right thing to do, because it comports with our principles and our belief in freedom and human rights, but also because we actually think China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalizes its own system.”
China experts believe that Chen will ultimately accept U.S. asylum — and that U.S. and Chinese officials will agree on such a plan, possibly before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner arrive in Beijing on Wednesday morning for long-scheduled meetings.
It’s a difficult choice for Chen. Chinese dissidents who have gone into exile in the United States have gained freedom, but most have lost stature.
Jerome A. Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University law school, said that the question for Chen is: “Is it better to be in China and be stifled, or to come to America and be frustrated because you’re not able to muster much understanding or support?”
The track record of those who have come to America before Chen is a strange mixture.
Li Lu, who came to the United States after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, is an investment manager and possible successor to Warren Buffett. Shen Tong, who also fled in 1989 and runs a successful software company, has devoted most of his time in recent months to plotting strategy for the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“The U.S. was not only my home, but it stood for something admirable or even inspirational,” Shen said, recalling how he felt when he first arrived. “That hasn’t been true for a while.” The Occupy movement has given him a chance to participate, as did the Tiananmen demonstrations. “In some ways, this is what I came for,” he said.
Wei Jingsheng, a Beijing zoo electrician who spent 18 years in prison for writing that China could not modernize economically without political modernization, makes speeches and has done talk shows on Voice of America. But he has struggled to rally support and has bickered with other exiles since arriving in 1997. He runs a foundation in Washington and lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
“I think I have been more effective in the United States than if I had stayed in a Chinese jail,” Wei said in an interview Monday. “That’s not true for most people sent to exile. Most are trapped by the need to make a living. They effectively are disappeared from this world.”
At times, China’s exiles have floundered. In the early 1990s, the author Orville Schell wrote a profile of exiled Tiananmen student leader Wu’er Kaixi, who was then running a Ranch House restaurant off a freeway near San Francisco International Airport.
The late Fang Lizhi made a poorly received, dogma-laden speech in broken English at the Council on Foreign Relations when he was allowed to leave the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for exile, and later went to teach at the University of Arizona.
Xu, who was 59 when he arrived, said adjusting to the United States has been difficult in some ways. Learning English and finding work was hard.
“Not being able to go back to China for so long has been a very negative experience, because China has been the home that nurtured me for so long,” he said. And he misses his relatives. “Even though my parents have passed away,” he said, “I can’t go tend to their graves.”
But he said the growth of the Internet has made it easier for exiles to have an impact in China. He is still able to e-mail or Skype people inside China. He has a Web site (www.cdp1998.org) that has been hacked and rebuilt several times, but he said it still gets about a million hits a month.
One person whose stature has grown in exile is Rebiya Kadeer, a successful businesswoman from the Uighur ethnic group in the western province of Xinjiang. In China, Kadeer was arrested while on her way to meet a U.S. congressional delegation in 1999. She was put in a small cell in Bajahu women’s prison with two women monitoring her. One day in 2005, she said, the guards left and people in dark suits appeared, telling her she was bound for the United States. She didn’t believe it until she was taken to Beijing and met a U.S. Embassy official.
“I couldn’t control myself,” she recalled. “I cried and hugged the embassy official.”
In the United States, she twice met President George W. Bush.
“She became the face of the Uighur struggle when she came to the United States,” said Nury Turkel, a lawyer and previous president of the Uighur American Association. “One of the wealthiest people in China before being arrested, she was already high-profile in China. Because of her tireless efforts after her release, she has been able to elevate the status of the Uighur struggle to an international level.”
But there have been trade-offs. “We cannot be directly involved in what’s happening inside the country,” Kadeer said. She added, “When we go into exile, our relatives are in absolute danger.” Chinese authorities have arrested two of her sons and put them in a prison next to the one that housed Kadeer.
That danger is a key one for Chen, who left his wife and child behind in Shandong province. Other relatives and friends have been questioned or arrested. In the YouTube video he posted last week, Chen appealed to Premier Wen Jiabao to protect his wife, who he said had been beaten repeatedly.
For both U.S. and Chinese officials, political asylum in the United States for Chen is likely to be the preferred route, analysts say. If Chen remains in China, U.S. officials fear he will continue to be abused and harassed, and Chinese officials fear he will remain a thorn in relations with Western nations that have put Chen’s treatment at or near the top of their human rights complaints for several years.
But for Chen, exile would mean giving up his goal of providing legal services in rural areas through what he called “barefoot lawyers,” a play on the Mao Zedong-era barefoot doctors. Chen also would be unable to continue to pursue the cause of women forced to undergo abortions or sterilization in rural Shandong. Unlike some other dissidents, he has called not for democracy but for the enforcement of China’s existing laws, which he says are widely ignored by courts, police and party officials.
His mission in the United States would be different. Yet Cohen, who met Chen before he ran afoul of Chinese authorities, said the lawyer has a “quiet charisma” that could help him stay prominent.
Xu sympathizes. “The situation in China is very dangerous, so leaving might be a better option for him,” Xu said. “It would be better if he could stay in China, because in China, he acts as a voice for the disenfranchised and unfairly treated.”