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September 21, 2017

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Chinese dissidents face dilemma over staying or leaving

They are only too aware that once they are exiled abroad, their influence will wane significantly.

Most are unable to speak English or another foreign language. And they find that the interest of an initially receptive foreign crowd cools after a few years.

Their essays or online posts are usually blocked in China, reducing them to virtual unknowns in their homeland.

"Even the most vocal of them, Wei Jingsheng, is practically forgotten now. You might try asking young or middle-aged people in Beijing who he is and getting their reactions," said China expert June Teufel Dreyer from the University of Miami, referring to China's most famous activist in the 1980s and 1990s.

This "out of China's sight, out of Chinese minds" predicament has also afflicted well- known dissidents of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

The likes of student leaders Chai Ling and Wu'er Kaixi, as well as astrophysicist Fang Lizhi — who died in Arizona last month — are largely unknown in mainland China today.

The exiles are banned from returning to China even on compassionate grounds, for example, to attend a family funeral.

Five Tiananmen exiles, including another famous former student leader Wang Dan, last month issued an open appeal in which they wrote: "We believe that returning to one's motherland is an inalienable right of a citizen."

But Wang also believes that the Internet and globalization have changed the concept of exile.

"They have eliminated the possibility of isolating Los Angeles (where I now live) from Beijing (my hometown), and Shandong province (where Chen is from)," he wrote in a commentary for The New York Times last Friday.

"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?"

Still, many exiles, like Ms Chai, have simply moved on.

She leads a corporate life in the West, seemingly away from the fight for human rights and democracy in China.

Another Tiananmen student leader Li Lu has carved out a successful new career as an investment banker in the U.S. The Columbia University alumnus has even been tipped to succeed tycoon Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway.

But such exit strategies are not an option for people such as Liu Xiaobo. The 2010 Nobel Peace laureate chose to return to China from the U.S. during the Tiananmen protests and was thrown behind bars several times.

Even after his most recent arrest in 2009, Liu made it clear that exile was not an alternative to prison. In December that year, he was sentenced to 11 years in jail for "inciting subversion of state power."

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