Some Additional Thoughts on Chen Guangcheng's Hopeful Departure From China

05/07/2012 05:02 pm ET | Updated Jul 06, 2012

China watchers have differing opinions on China's decision to let activist Chen Guangcheng apply to leave China for the United States, on the trustworthiness of the Chinese government and on the pros and cons of Chen's acceptance of such an opportunity.

Here's a roundup.

Andrew Jacobs at The New York Times says China's decision wasn't a major concession at all:

Based on past experience, China is often all too pleased to see its most nettlesome dissidents go into exile, where they almost invariably lose their ability to grab headlines in the West and to command widespread sympathy both in China and abroad.

Jacobs quotes Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid, a Christian advocacy group in Texas that was instrumental in drawing attention to Mr. Chen's cause, as saying, "The Chinese will be happy to get their No. 1 troublemaker out of their hair," and cites the case of Wei Jingsheng (see below), "one of China's most famous prisoners of conscience, who sank into relative obscurity after Beijing granted him medical parole in 1997 and sent him packing to the United States."

But Jacobs points out that there are exceptions, citing the example of the aforementioned Dr. Fu who, in addition to advising Mr. Chen, "has significant influence in Washington, thanks in part to the largess of Christian Americans." There are others.

Wang Dan, a leader of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests in 1989, was arrested twice as a result and when offered -- for the second time -- the opportunity to come to the U.S., he took it and has never regretted it.

In a more positive op-ed in the Times -- perhaps penned before the announcement of the final agreement about Mr. Chen -- Dan reaches out to Chen Guangcheng to tell him that he would not be making a mistake by following his example and that, in addition to saving his family enormous pain, his departure would not have to hamper his efforts to encourage change back home. "In my own experience, being an exile has only helped," he says, and welcomes Mr. Chen to America,.

After sharing his own experiences as a dissenter in China, his languishing in Chinese prisons and, finally, his departure for America, Dan concludes:

I have been in exile for 14 years, and have learned that there are many ways to exert influence in China from abroad. Although I very much would like to return, I have no regrets about my time here. I've studied at Harvard, I teach at universities in Taiwan and the United States and I continue to publish regularly about current events in China. My work circulates and is read extensively in China via the Internet and social media. I have tens of thousands of followers on Weibo, China's version of Twitter.

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.

Times op-ed contributor Wei Jingsheng, another Chinese activist who also spent a considerable amount of time in Chinese prisons and who eventually was able to leave China, says, "Don't Believe China's Promises."

In his New York Times op-ed, also written before the Chen Guangcheng announcement, Jingsheng warns of the untrustworthiness of the Chinese regime when it comes to promises and agreements about the future of its prominent dissidents.

After several broken promises about his departure to the U.S. -- he was let down by the U.S. government, too -- and after more time in Chinese prisons, Jingsheng was finally allowed to come to the U.S. in 1997, with help from then-President Clinton.

With respect to Mr. Chen, Jingsheng has this to say:

From my experience, one can see how the Communist Party operates -- why it makes promises and what its so-called guarantees mean. It is obvious that Mr. Chen did not understand the emptiness of these promises, which explains why he initially accepted the government's pledges and left the United States Embassy in Beijing, where he had fled after escaping house arrest in his village, for treatment at a hospital.

Again, this was written before the tentative agreement that would allow Mr. Chen to travel to the United States as a student was announced Friday.

Finally, in its Saturday editorial, the Times says that while there is fresh hope "in the harrowing odyssey of Chen Guangcheng," nothing is guaranteed and that the Obama administration will have to work hard to make Beijing keep to this commitment.

While China appears anxious to "get this episode, or at least the international condemnation, behind it. The first test will be whether Beijing expedites Mr. Chen's visa request. Or, once Mrs. Clinton is gone, condemns him to a bureaucratic paper chase. Washington must make clear that there will be a high price for any trickery," says the Times.

The State Department said Friday that it expected China to "expeditiously" process Mr. Chen's travel documents. If Chinese recent history and duplicity involving such events and episodes are any guide, nothing can be taken for granted until Mr. Chen sets foot on U.S. soil. This time, the entire world is watching and such may influence China to do the right thing -- but don't hold your breath.