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Chen Guangcheng must weigh loss of prominence against protection of US asylum

A decade later, he speaks little English. Every spring he teaches a dozen or more advanced Chinese-language students at Brown University. He has twice organized meetings of the China Democracy Party, once at the University of Maryland and once at the Hope Club in Providence, R.I. Each time, about 30 people attended.

The fate of exiled Chinese dissidents like Xu could prove instructive for Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer who escaped effective house arrest last week and is believed to have taken refuge in a U.S. Embassy building in Beijing. Though Chen has told friends he wants to remain in China, political asylum in the United States seems a likely outcome, China experts say.

President Obama declined to comment directly about Chen on Monday. But he said that “every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up,” adding that it was not only “the right thing to do, because it comports with our principles and our belief in freedom and human rights, but also because we actually think China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalizes its own system.”

China experts believe that Chen will ultimately accept U.S. asylum — and that U.S. and Chinese officials will agree on such a plan, possibly before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner arrive in Beijing on Wednesday morning for long-scheduled meetings.

It’s a difficult choice for Chen. Chinese dissidents who have gone into exile in the United States have gained freedom, but most have lost stature.

Jerome A. Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University law school, said that the question for Chen is: “Is it better to be in China and be stifled, or to come to America and be frustrated because you’re not able to muster much understanding or support?”

Mixed outcomes

The track record of those who have come to America before Chen is a strange mixture.

Li Lu, who came to the United States after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, is an investment manager and possible successor to Warren Buffett. Shen Tong, who also fled in 1989 and runs a successful software company, has devoted most of his time in recent months to plotting strategy for the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“The U.S. was not only my home, but it stood for something admirable or even inspirational,” Shen said, recalling how he felt when he first arrived. “That hasn’t been true for a while.” The Occupy movement has given him a chance to participate, as did the Tiananmen demonstrations. “In some ways, this is what I came for,” he said.

Wei Jingsheng, a Beijing zoo electrician who spent 18 years in prison for writing that China could not modernize economically without political modernization, makes speeches and has done talk shows on Voice of America. But he has struggled to rally support and has bickered with other exiles since arriving in 1997. He runs a foundation in Washington and lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

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