Chinese-Americans React To Dissident Dispute

Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng is in a Beijing hospital, hoping to eventually come to the U.S. to study. But what do Chinese-Americans think of him, and the diplomatic tension he sparked between the U.S. and China? Host Michel Martin discusses reactions with Sherry Zhang, host of a Mandarin-language call-in show in California.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, you may think you love action, adventure and fantasy movies, but do you love your favorite characters enough to live as one of them for a weekend? We go into the world of superhero and fantasy role play. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to turn to the case of the Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng. He is the dissident whose escape from house arrest and later request for American protection dominated the news during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to China last week, and of course his escape was made all the more remarkable by the fact that he is blind.

Chinese and U.S. officials are currently talking about plans for Chen to study in the United States. The Chinese government said Friday that it would allow Chen to apply to study overseas, but as of today reports indicate that he is still in a Beijing hospital surrounded by security officials.

The case has raised serious diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and China, but we found ourselves wondering about the kind of conversations Chinese-Americans are having, so we've called upon Sherry Zhang. She is the host of a live Mandarin-language talk show in San Francisco, California and her listeners have been talking about that with her, so we've called her.

Sherry, thank you so much for speaking with us again.

SHERRY ZHANG: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: What is the tenor of the conversations that your listeners have been having with you? Are they angry or - and if I can ask this - who do they side with in this?

ZHANG: Similar to before, when there are human rights issues on the table, there are two sides. One side's being very sympathetic.

MARTIN: Sympathetic to whom?

ZHANG: The victims. Like, this time, it's Chen Guangcheng, who actually is blind, like (technical difficulties) at the meantime that his rights being taken away from him - his basic human rights - and also he's got bitten and his family got bitten by the policemen and all that. So one side's being very sympathetic.

The other side is always stand along the line of the Chinese state media. Critical of the U.S. and saying U.S. is meddling with the Chinese affair and also critical of Chen Guangcheng, saying that he's demanding too much. He's making the country look bad and all of that.

Although the difference between this time and the previous ones were a lot more people being more sympathetic because the victim is blind.

MARTIN: Mr. Chen has been speaking with the Western press throughout this ordeal and I just want to play a short clip of his remarks, translated for an NPR report last week. Here it is.

CHEN GUANGCHENG: (Through translator) There are lots of problems, which means that I want to go to the U.S. as soon as possible for treatment. I hope Clinton can help get passports for me and my family.

MARTIN: There is sort of a portion of your listeners who are annoyed. They feel that the U.S. is meddling in China's internal affairs and that they are concerned that this case is making China look bad. I think that that might be surprising to some people because I think that there are those who would assume that people who are Chinese-Americans or people who living, you know, in the United States are critical of the kind of the - the Chinese government. And that's not the case?

ZHANG: Actually, there are some people like that, although that - according to Jamestown Foundation's report a few years ago, the Chinese government either control or influence more than 90 percent of the media, the Chinese media in the United States. So actually, a lot of Chinese either read or watch or listen to the Chinese media, even though they're in the U.S., so they're very influenced by the state media.

MARTIN: So Chinese speakers who are still consuming news in Chinese national languages are consuming state-run media. Do they know that they are?

ZHANG: Most of time, they don't. They thought that all the media like that and that's the public opinion.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Sherry Zhang. She is the host of a Mandarin language talk program. We're talking about the case of the human rights activist, Chen Guangcheng, and we're talking about reaction among her listeners.

And I think the way this is being described in the English language media - some are saying that it's forcing the Obama administration to choose between U.S. economic interests and U.S. democratic principles. And I'm wondering if people who are calling your program see it that way as well.

ZHANG: Yes. They do see it that way as well. It's not a secret that the U.S. government pays a lot of attention to the economic development with the Chinese government to form some kind of partnership, although because the Obama government, especially President Obama - he has made a lot of very, very nice speeches in the past and talking a lot about human rights. So I think there are a lot of Chinese has really high hope on the U.S. government helping them with their human rights issues. They keep their hopes high and sometimes they get very disappointed.

MARTIN: People who have been interested in speaking out about China's human rights record, particularly expatriates or immigrants, have not been so vocal in recent years, but do you sense that that's changing in this particular case?

ZHANG: I think in this particular case a lot of people really feel for Mr. Chen Guangcheng because he's so courageous and he's blind and also this case is more clear-cut human rights issue. I see a lot of very strong reactions on his case and a lot of dissidents are speaking out for him, so compared to past human rights issues, somehow this one - you see a lot more response.

MARTIN: Mr. Chen is the second prominent figure this year to seek refuge at a U.S. consulate in China. The first was a politician and former police chief. Did that case resonate in the same way? And it is worth noting that it was not handled in the same way. The U.S. declined to offer this individual a refuge.

ZHANG: He has done many bad things in the past. Particularly I have seen reports saying that he participated in taking people's organs for transplant and some from live people. But it's very interesting that he also ran into the U.S. consulate to seek for asylum. So his case is very different than Chen Guangcheng's case.

MARTIN: I know, but Sherry, I have to ask though, because we are now seeing in state-run media reports of inappropriate things that Mr. Chen is alleged to have done. For example, our correspondent, Louisa Lim, reported that there are now reports that he was charging people for water and all these other accusations, and she's describing this as an effort to demonize him. And so I'm wondering now whether - are people looking at Mr. Chen with skeptical eyes as well?

ZHANG: You will see some Chinese who would believe in that state media's report, but that tactic is actually no surprise to me. The Chinese government's very good at finding things to discredit people and usually try to make the public opinion - swing the public opinion. But now they're losing credibilities and I think less and less people will believe in what they are saying.

MARTIN: And finally, Sherry, before we let you go - and thank you for taking the time, again, to talk with us - Mr. Chen, as we've discussed, along with his family, is seeking refuge in the United States, where he would hope to study. And I'm asking you - I apologize - to predict, but how do you think he'll be received?

ZHANG: I think he will be received warmly just because, even though I said there are two sides, opinions, I see a vast majority of people being supportive of him and feeling very sympathetic for him, and that's really a major majority. So I think in his case he should feel very comfortable in this Chinese community overseas and particularly in San Francisco, in the U.S. I think there will always be some people being critical, but I think it's OK. I think the majority of people he will feel very comfortable with.

MARTIN: Sherry Zhang is the host of a Mandarin language call-in talk show based in San Francisco, California, and she was kind enough to join us from the studios of Stanford University.

Sherry, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ZHANG: Thank you so much, Michel.

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