Where Chen Fits In A History Of Dissidents

Host Rachel Martin talks with China scholar Perry Link about activist Chen Guangcheng's arrival in the U.S. Link has followed the lives of Chinese dissidents involved with the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For more on this story, we're joined now by Perry Link. He's a professor and China scholar at the University of California, Riverside. And he joins us from the studios of KUCR in Riverside.

Welcome to the program, Professor Link.

PERRY LINK: I'm happy to be here.

MARTIN: So Chen Guancheng's case triggered all kinds of behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering between the U.S. and China. Is that over now, now that Chen is in the United States? Or is this just the beginning of a new kind of diplomatic tangle?

LINK: Well, the tangle is finished for this particular case, it seems. But the problems of human rights in China are not problems of one or two people whose cases have to be "resolved," quote-unquote. It's a very deep, underlying long-term problem and we should view it that way.

MARTIN: I understand you followed a generation of Tiananmen Square dissidents after they had arrived in the United States. You even helped one get asylum. Based on that experience, what do you think is in store for Chen now?

LINK: The record of dissidents leaving China has changed pretty dramatically over the last 23 years, since the Tiananmen Massacre. At the time, the Chinese government was very angry to see people like Liu Binyan and Fang Lizhi and Fu Xiao Jun and many, many others who fled and congregated at the time at Princeton University, where I was teaching. There were about 25 of them. And the government didn't like that because they wanted them to come back. They were wanted and so on.

By now, I think we should say that the Chinese government's policy has changed about 180 degrees. Now, they're quite happy to see what they view as troublemakers like Chen Guangcheng be exiled, because the record over the last two decades of people who've come out has been that their influence inside China dramatically declines, and they feel frustrated. And their followers back in China feel frustrated.

So this exit of Chen Guangcheng is in one sense a win-win situation, because he and his family are now safe. And back in China they weren't and didn't feel that they were safe. And the Chinese government wins because it gets rid of a thorn in its side.

MARTIN: And this is a person with a different kind of background. I mean, unlike other very high-profile Chinese human rights dissidents, he is not an urban intellectual. He is someone who comes from the countryside, a very kind of commoner background. How does that set him apart?

LINK: You're quite right that that makes him different in a very important way. Because until now, the so-called dissidents in China have been overwhelmingly elite intellectuals - writers and professors and the like. And they have come out with sophisticated statements about what political reform ought to be, and what universal principles of human rights are and how they should apply to China.

But at another level in China, you've got very widespread discontent that bubbles up from the bottom. So the importance of a man like Chen Guangcheng is that he is one of those from-below people. He's self-taught in the law and he came from the bottom up helping women to resist forced abortions and so on. And then his reputation spread, especially because of the Internet. The Internet has made a huge difference in China.

So he is a ground-up hero, different from the traditional sort of dissident intellectual. And he brings together these two levels of an international level of awareness of human rights, and the bubbling discontent from below.

MARTIN: And as we heard, Chen is expected to study at New York University, expected to study law. How much influence can he have on the human rights situation in China when he's so far away?

LINK: He can't have nearly as much as he could've had, had he stayed in China. I think he himself knew that, but made the decision to leave simply out of fear for himself and his family. And no one can blame him. I certainly don't for that decision. That's his right to do.

But is it a loss for the - for what he could've done in China? Yes, I'm afraid it is.

MARTIN: Professor Perry Link of the University of California, Riverside, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LINK: My pleasure.

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