When I was younger I was arrested twice, and sentenced twice, because I had been a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests and a participant in China’s civil rights movement. I was also released twice, giving me two opportunities — once in 1993 and again in 1998 — to make a choice between leaving China or remaining. The first time, I chose to stay. The second time, I chose to leave for America.
I have never regretted making that second choice, and now I want to reach out to Chen Guangcheng in Beijing and tell him he would not be making a mistake by doing the same. In addition to saving his family enormous pain, his leaving China now would not have to hamper his efforts to encourage change back home. In my own experience, being an exile has only helped.
It was February 1993 when I was first released from prison. Less than a week later, officials came to let me know I could leave China and study in America. But I turned them down because I wanted to continue to fight for democracy and human rights in China — the same reasoning that American diplomats initially heard this week from Mr. Chen, the blind human rights advocate who evaded extralegal confinement and sought refuge at the United States Embassy in Beijing.
I was 24 then. It was just four years after the Tiananmen massacre, and the political environment in China was very hostile. But I felt I could not forget those students and other citizens who had sacrificed their lives for liberty on June 4, 1989. I knew that if I stayed I would very likely be thrown into prison again. But I did not want to give up. I still wanted to do something for my country, which I love deeply, and I wanted to do it in China itself.
So I stayed. I criticized the government, contacted other democracy activists, published protest petitions. And, as expected, I was arrested again in 1995. After long interrogation, I was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Three years later, President Bill Clinton was about to visit China, and he expressed hope that its officials might take some action toward improving human rights. On April 17, 1998, officials from the Jinzhou prison in Liaoning Province (where the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo is presently imprisoned) asked me if I was willing to leave for America.
This time I said yes. The reason was simple: I did this for my family. When I was imprisoned the first time, I was 20 years old. It was of course a heavy burden for my family, but they supported me. They knew I was doing the right thing, that I was making a sacrifice for our country. But they paid a high price for their support. My mother was even jailed for 50 days.
When I was later put in the Jinzhou prison, my parents had to travel more than 300 miles to visit me every month. The pain and hardship they endured deeply saddened me. I knew that if I chose to stay in China, I would be praised internationally; I thought I might even be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. But I decided that enough was enough. My family had suffered so much, and it was time that I repaid them. So in April 1998, I chose to leave. I arrived in America and became a graduate student at Harvard.
Today, Mr. Chen’s story reminds me of my own. In recent years, his wife, son and daughter have sacrificed their ability to lead normal lives as they support his struggle. They have lived in fear every day. Now they may have an opportunity to leave for the United States and lead a secure and peaceful life.
I understand and respect the reasons he might hesitate to leave. Perhaps he thinks that he would no longer be able to take part in China’s struggle for civil rights, or that his influence would diminish if he lived abroad.
But if he feels that way, he is too pessimistic.
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.
Instead, I have been able to earn a Ph.D. It was difficult but worth the effort. I learned a lot of history I wasn’t taught in China and, more important, I learned firsthand what it means to live in a democratic society, to experience the American way of life, and to see America struggling with its own problems. At the Harvard commencement after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for example, a student speaker caused an uproar with his plan to deliver a speech with the word “jihad” in its title. The university stood behind his right to speak the word, and the student changed the title of the speech. Perhaps this did not surprise Americans, but it made a deep impression on me.
If I can return to China one day to work for change, those experiences will prove invaluable. Many of China’s leaders in the last 100 years, including Sun Yat-sen himself, spent time living, studying and working overseas.
Finally, there are more than 30 million overseas Chinese, who have deep and abiding ties to mainland China. While in exile, I’ve been able to interact freely with this community and, I hope, to have played a bridge-building role. I have traveled extensively in the United States, Europe, Australia, Taiwan. I’ve taken part in more than 1,000 seminars, debates and lectures.
My objective has been straightforward: to ensure that people do not forget the Tiananmen democracy movement of 1989 and the military crackdown that followed. I think I am having some success, because I get e-mail almost every day from young people on the mainland who have crossed the Great Firewall to log on to my Facebook page and ask me for details.
I’ve come to believe that exile is not a liability but an asset.
Whether he comes to share that feeling or not, 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.
I also hope he knows that even if he leaves, all of us who are exiles will one day return to China.
I look forward to seeing him in America.
Wang Dan was a leader of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests in 1989. This essay was translated by Scott Savitt from the Chinese.