It’s been two weeks since blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng fled Beijing for the United States, capping off a high-stakes diplomatic battle that included a dramatic refuge with the U.S. Embassy, two international deals, a family arrest, and a personal plea to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The legal activist, and soon-to-be New York University visiting scholar, now joins the ranks of China’s exiled dissidents, which includes Wuer Kaixi, once China’s No. 2 most wanted. Last week, Kaixi tried to recreate Guangcheng’s journey in reverse and return to the country that has banned him for 23 years.
Wuer Kaixi was a lead student organizer in the 1989 Tiananmen protests. He became internationally famous for rebuking then-Premier Li Peng on live television; in the aftermath of the June 4 massacre, he fled to Hong Kong, France, and then the United States. Now a political commentator in Taiwan, Kaixi has been trying to return to China both to see his aging parents and pick up the dialogue that died with the military crackdown.
Inspired by Guangcheng’s success, Kaixi tried to surrender himself to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. on May 18, hoping to return even by way of deportation. He marched up to the embassy doors and rang the doorbell. But the man who has spoken out against China’s human rights violations for more than two decades, who has represented Chinese Nobel Peace laureate (and fellow dissident) Liu Xiaobo, who is willing to go to prison to see his parents again, received no response.
In a phone conversation, Kaixi and I talked about Chen Guangcheng, Kaixi’s latest attempt to return, and his continued hope for “counter-talk” with the Chinese government.
—Angela Chen for Guernica
Guernica: Can you tell me about the inspiration behind this visit to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C.? Were you influenced by Chen Guangcheng’s high-profile arrival in Newark, N.J.?
Wuer Kaixi: This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to return. I [tried to return to China] in 2010, and at the time the Chen Guangcheng incident hadn’t yet occurred. But this has everything to do with Chen Guangcheng’s appearing in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. I thought [my actions] would put the Chinese government into the spotlight more—see, the U.S. Embassy provides assistance to Chinese citizens with the name and the sponsors, but one Chinese citizen can’t even go back to his own country to see his aging parents. The comparison is obvious and strong.
I’ve tried everything, including begging the Chinese regime, begging the same group of people who put me in this position, who hold my parents hostage, who continue to persecute dissidents in China. And then these attempts didn’t succeed.
This is a continuation of my attempts to full-on return, part of a bridge that I initiated and started in 2009. That year marked the 20th anniversary of the June 4 massacre, and on the eve I boarded an airplane and landed in Macau—which is part of the People’s Republic of China—and I asked the local authority to arrest me. They kept me for night, then took me on an airplane and deported me back to Taiwan the second day.
In 2010, a year later, I tried to board an airplane and fly from Tokyo to Bangkok via Beijing, because it is impossible for me to obtain any travel permit to go to China directly. My idea is to board this airplane and, when I arrive in Beijing, turn myself into the authorities. But the airline cancelled my ticket, of course. And so the following day, June 4, 2010, I went to the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo to protest, and when I tried to force myself into the Chinese Embassy, the embassy had the local Japanese police arrest me. I was detained for two days, released with no charge.
Guernica: Can you elaborate on your reasons for wanting so badly to go back to the country you protested, and that that exiled you?
Wuer Kaixi: There are two reasons. The first one is rather tragic: I haven’t seen my parents for the last 23 years. I cannot go back to China. China exiled me because of my disagreement with the government, and the Chinese prohibit my parents from going abroad. I’ve tried everything, including begging the Chinese regime, begging the same group of people who put me in this position, who hold my parents hostage, who continue to persecute dissidents in China. And then these attempts didn’t succeed. I am more humiliated than disappointed; I have given up on this, on modern China, but I still want to see my parents. So I decided, my going back to China seemed like a larger possibility than getting my parents out, and it’s worth finally getting to see them, even if that meeting has to take place as a prison visit.
Guernica: After having once been No. 2 on China’s most-wanted list, what is the significance of your receiving the cold shoulder when you try repeatedly to return? What does this response mean on a greater scale?
strong>Wuer Kaixi: I don’t know. I think that’s a fair question to ask them, to ask the Chinese government. What I’ve learned in the last 20-some years is that trying to analyze something wise is always a worthy effort, but trying to analyze something that is completely irrational and absurd can usually never get a result. I really don’t know why they’re doing this.
The world has already seen the absurdity of the Chinese regime, the problem is that they’re taking the absurdity as presented. You can get used to the absurdity all you want, but you should not accept it, and that’s my message to the world.
Guernica: And after these 23 years, are you still interested in creating a dialogue with the regime that exiled you?
Wuer Kaixi: Yes, that is the second reason I want to return. First, I want to see my parents. Second, I want to continue the argument initiated 23 years ago in Beijing when we took the streets, when we occupied the square. The demand is called dui hua. It can be translated as “dialogue,” but the translation would be “counter-talk.” Basically, I want to have communication with government where people and government are equal counterparts. That peaceful demand 23 years ago was answered by the military crackdown.
In the last 23 years, the Chinese government has put us in the position to be their enemy, to be confrontational. We never wanted this confrontation. Twenty-three years have passed, and we still don’t want confrontation, we still want this counter-talk. I echo my mentor, Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, and his famous statement that “I have no enemy.” Neither do we, we don’t have an enemy. The Chinese regime is not our enemy. We need a dialogue with the government, we want to be able to talk about right and wrong, want to have a say in China’s future. Even if that dialogue has to take place in the courtroom, in a formal place, I still want that dialogue to take place.