Episode 8: The Shit In The Frame | Crooked Media
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February 24, 2024
Dissident At The Doorstep
Episode 8: The Shit In The Frame

In This Episode

Guangcheng has put his life on the line to stand up for noble causes and principles. He has also thrown his support behind Trump and, more recently, a range of intolerant ideas. There are so many things to admire about him, but there are others that are hard to excuse. We thought with this series that we could show how all these things could be true at once. But as we got closer to the end of the story, we learned just how hard that really is.




Alison Klayman: Dissidents are often associated with positive characteristics. They’re brave. Self-sacrificing. They are people who stand up for their ideals. Less positive attributes might come with the territory, but they tend to fly under the radar. In telling any story, it’s helpful to make the hero consistent. I think Guangcheng understands this too. We called him up last summer for a final conversation, and he said something that stuck out. It came up when he was talking about a disagreement he had with his son’s position on environmentalism and eating animals. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] They say, oh, you should protect the environment, protect nature. And I say, yes, certain things need our protection, like animals and plants, but this is not absolute. 


Alison Klayman: Guangcheng then gave an example. Imagine, he said, that you’re drawing a picture of a farm. 


Richard Yeh: You say the painting should reflect reality. That’s correct. You paint a beautiful lawn with flowers on the edge and green grass in the middle. Right. But if a cow pooped on the lawn, do you need to paint that too? I don’t think so. 


Alison Klayman: This is a problem with stories too. You want to tell things like they are as completely and accurately as possible, but stories need structure. The events you’re telling have to go in some kind of order and for things to make sense. You’re constantly making choices about what goes in next and what doesn’t fit. With this show, we thought we could do it all. Draw a beautiful picture and keep the shit in the frame. But as we got closer to the end of the story, we learned just how hard that really is. I’m Alison Klayman. 


Yangyang Cheng: I’m Yangcheng Cheng. 


Colin Jones: And I’m Colin Jones, and this is episode eight of Dissident at the Doorstep. [music plays] Whenever I told people about this series, I’d say something like. Guangcheng was a legal activist who escaped house arrest, came to New York, was celebrated by the human rights community, and then went MAGA. And generally, people would be shocked. Like what? How did that happen? The truth is, his trajectory isn’t that surprising at all. Dissidents and emigres from socialist countries tend to go pretty far right when they get to American soil. There are many examples among ex-Soviet Cuban-Americans and increasingly among Chinese democracy activists. Also, Guangcheng’s choice to back Trump makes some sense, given that Trump dragged the Republican Party and our whole country toward Guangcheng on the issue that matters to him most. China.


[clip of Donald Trump]: China has been taking advantage of the United States for many, many years. I’m not just talking about during the Obama administration, you can go back long before that, and we can’t let that happen. 


Colin Jones: Going back to the mid 1990s, the consensus among both Democrats and Republicans was that free trade and engagement with China was a good thing. Trump tore that consensus apart with the trade war he started in 2018. And then with the belligerent things he was willing to say when it came to the pandemic. 


[news clip]: Every day, Americans are still losing their lives, and we’re still seeing more cases every day. 


[clip of Donald Trump]: Well, they’re losing their lives everywhere in the world. And maybe that’s a question you should ask China. Don’t ask me. Ask China that question. Okay. 


Colin Jones: Guangcheng understood this rightfully as a sea change in the US government’s position on China, and he threw in behind the politician who was willing to make China an enemy. In rhetoric, if not always in practice. But if hatred for the CCP is Guangcheng’s lodestar, he’s also followed it into the more conspiratorial and spiteful precincts of the American Right. And there’s a little bit of shit here that we haven’t talked about yet. In our interviews, Guangcheng tended to downplay his more extreme beliefs. Maybe because he knows how they might play to a wider audience. When we asked about his thoughts on LGBTQ rights, for instance, he said he didn’t want to talk about it because his other profession was as a doctor. This was a reference to his studies in Chinese medicine. But I wondered if this was Guangcheng’s way of saying that he thought there was a biological reason homosexuality was improper. When Yangyang asked him to clarify, he ducked out to take a call. 


Yangyang Cheng: It’s not just about queer people. After the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, I asked him whether outlawing abortion violates the woman’s right to her own body. Not unlike the forced abortions in China, he had fought against. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] To only emphasize that a woman has the right to abortion, that I can do whatever I want. I think this argument is a trap by itself, because then what about the husband? Where does he stand if the husband has no say in whether or not to have a child, then he has no say in anything. Do you think this reflects the reality from a society’s point of view? Is it okay? Is it fair? In other words. 


Yangyang Cheng: Guangcheng is not a Christian. He is not particularly religious. But hearing him. It seems to me that his opposition to women’s reproductive rights shares the same patriarchal underpinnings as the Christian Right. Guangcheng does not see a need for women’s rights. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] The so-called women’s rights are very popular these days. What is women’s rights? Is it opposed to men’s rights? Is it part of human rights? Do we need men’s rights to legitimize women’s rights, their children’s rights? Do we also need others rights? If you do this, there really is no way to make it work. 


Yangyang Cheng: He takes a similar position on the Black Lives Matter movement. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] Black Lives Matter do yellow lives matter? Why do we emphasize Black Lives Matter? Why must we emphasize white lives matter? In fact, I personally think this went too far. 


Yangyang Cheng: In other words, all lives matter. Guangcheng has emphasized he literally cannot see skin color. Besides, he once told us one of his kids tutors was Black. But the more he spoke about his encounters with Black people in a supermarket, on the subway, or even in the news, there is little ambiguity about this prejudice. History usually begins with perceived rudeness or even violent behavior from a stranger, and then he deduces the person’s race and rails about how ridiculous it is that he isn’t supposed to mention it. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] I remember once in New York, the media reported that an Asian woman had been attacked by a man from Africa. I immediately pushed back and I said, what is a man from Africa? Just tell me what kind of person he is. It’s that simple. So how do I put it? The root of the problem is that people dare not confront the issue, which is who are the people committing these attacks, right? Just face it. Who cares if you’re white or Black or yellow? You just say it, right? 


Yangyang Cheng: I do not know when Guangcheng formed his views on black people. Whether it was before or after he came to the US. I do know that anti-Black racism is not an exclusively Western phenomenon. As a college senior in China, I told my family I was going to pursue my PhD at the University of Chicago, and every single one of them asked. I heard there are a lot of Black people in Chicago. Will you be safe there? In the summer of 2020? My mother in China saw reports of racial uprisings in the US and asked me why Black people are so quick to anger my mother in Guangcheng and hold opposite views regarding their birth country. She is a firm defender of her government, but when Guangcheng talks about social issues, he often sounds just like her. I am reminded of these words from James Baldwin, who wrote that one of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because they sense once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain. All this suggests that Guangcheng’s right wing turn was not because he was misled by nefarious forces, or simply out of opportunism. While conservative groups in the US have appropriated his work in China for their own agendas, Guangcheng himself does view society through a conservative lens. He seems to have internalized a hierarchical order that maps out a world and his place in it. His grievance against the Chinese state is real, but the free society, he imagines, does not seem to accord equal freedom to every individual. 


Colin Jones: We wanted to know how Guangcheng situates himself in the world nowadays. That’s why during our interviews, we pressed him to make his ideas clear. But there’s another place to go to hear what Guangcheng has been thinking. His own podcast. He’s been making it since 2021 with the help of a student from Catholic University. 


Will Bethridge: Welcome to The Barefoot Lawyer, reports Chen Guangcheng. The blind barefoot lawyer tells us about his fight for democracy in China and his subsequent escape there from. 


Colin Jones: This podcast seems to be his main project at Catholic at the moment, and it’s the clearest distillation we have of what he wants the world to think of him right now. Lately, a lot of the show has been about Guangcheng’s belief in a conspiracy theory that COVID is bioweapon engineered in a CCP lab. But the single most important subject in his podcast is Guangcheng himself. He talks about his early life and work in China, how he became the barefoot lawyer, and how he escaped to the US. Sometimes, Guangcheng appears alongside other dissidents, including Bob Fu and Wang Dan, a student protest leader at Tiananmen in 1989. In an episode in the summer of 2022, Guangcheng talks about a plan to construct a reservoir near his home village that would flood the region and displace thousands of residents. According to Guangcheng, the motivation is to erase evidence of his presence there. He’s explaining it to, Will Bethridge his producer. 


Chen Guangcheng: They try to, make, how to see that. Let’s see if we all keep the water there. 


Will Bethridge: So they’ll keep the water there. But they are they trying to destroy the the other parts? 


Chen Guangcheng: Yeah. Yeah, I think we are one there. And the make and a make. My village in the water. So. 


Will Bethridge: Are they planning on, submerging the village in water? 


Chen Guangcheng: Yeah, yeah. 


Will Bethridge: Wow. So they want to flood the village? 


Chen Guangcheng: Yeah, yeah. So. 


Will Bethridge: Oh my goodness. 


Chen Guangcheng: Yeah. Yeah. All the village will be, in the water. And of course not just my village. More than 27 village. We are getting in trouble. So the Communist party use this way to clean the memory. 


Colin Jones: Guangcheng is saying the Communist Party is flooding the area to clean the memory of his work there. In another episode, he credits his work against forced abortion in 2003 as the reason the Chinese government ended the one child policy in 2016. Over a decade later. 


Yangyang Cheng: That Guangcheng takes personal credit for ending the one child policy. Sounds incredible. For me. It is also incredibly sad. In making our show. I listen to every episode of his podcast. I heard him repeat well-trod views on international headlines as being conspiracy theories. Time and again, he returns to decade old stories of the most traumatic period of his life. His mistreatment by the Chinese state seems to be the only unique thing he has to say. Regardless of the topic at hand, each episode lands with Guangcheng denouncing the evils of the CCP to an audience that does not need convincing. This is a man with an outsized view of himself, severed from his native land and trying desperately to grasp onto relevancy in his adopted home. 


Alison Klayman: Here’s the thing about being a dissident. As soon as that title gets bestowed on you, you’re marked as someone who can no longer safely stay at home. Many dissidents are forced to leave, and when they do, they lose their battleground. Guangcheng’s work was about trying to force the CCP to follow its own laws. As a citizen, listening to the grievances of his neighbors, it’s almost impossible to do this from outside China. So it makes sense that Guangcheng has clung tightly to his story and decided to align himself with the person and the party most willing to attack the CCP, and in doing so, has married his worldviews with a hateful and authoritarian movement here in the States. All this time, we’ve wondered if it had to be this way, and for a little while, we thought we could understand Guangcheng story better if we ended the show by looking at another dissident in exile. After the break, you’ll hear how that turned out. Writing this last episode has been a journey. Originally, we planned to focus on Teng Biao, the legal activist and close friend of Guangcheng. He was Guangcheng’s partner in the legal case against China’s enforcement of the one child policy, and passed along that sycamore leaf bouquet made by Guangcheng’s daughter. That Guangcheng preserved all those years in prison. We interviewed Teng Biao twice at his home in New Jersey. After our first session, he took us outside on a little garden tour. Behind a slightly neglected pool. In the backyard was a ramshackle structure made of wood and wire. 


Teng Biao: My younger daughter Nancy, really loves all kinds of pets. So these chickens are her pet? 


Alison Klayman: Well, there’s a lot of them. Teng Biao then took us around front and was pointing out some flowers he’d planted by his walkway. 


Teng Biao: So I planted the roses and they were blooming last month. 


Colin Jones: There are some flowers telling me I could only name in Chinese. At one point, we all took out our phones to try to find the English name of a flower he was pointing to. 


Teng Biao: Zhege jiao dingxiang, dingxianghua.  


Alison Klayman: Lilac. 


Teng Biao: Lilac. Oh, okay. Lilac. I should memorize all these flowers name. 


Colin Jones: I remember being quite touched by this moment, Teng Biao had this whole vocabulary in Chinese with which you could pick out each flower. Name it and put it into a kind of order. And what he was working on as he led us around that garden, was transferring that ordered world into this new home here in New Jersey, where he felt like he should be able to name his flowers in English, too. I remember thinking, so this is what it’s like when you’re forced into exile. 


Alison Klayman: We wanted to interview Teng Biao because he was an important friend to Guangcheng and could help us tell Guangcheng story. But as I learn more about Teng Biao, I couldn’t help but compare the two. They had so many things in common. Rural upbringing, childhood illness, a commitment to activism that led to run ins with the authorities in detention. Teng Biao fled to the U.S. when he saw his close friends and fellow activists all being arrested after Xi Jinping came to power in 2013. His wife and oldest daughter, Grace, had to go through a risky three week journey to get out of China over the Yunnan border and going through Burma and Thailand and Laos to get to the US. In America, both Teng Biao and Guangcheng had to figure out their place in society, and they both decided to continue being vocal critics of the CCP. But then these two men, whose politics were so linked in China, had a falling out over their politics in the US, specifically over Guangcheng’s support of Trump at the RNC. 


Teng Biao: For me, it’s really embarrassing and confusing because Donald Trump is not a supporter of American constitutional democracy, and he sees the media as an enemy and he promotes conspiracy theories. He doesn’t respect the rule of law. 


Alison Klayman: This view put Teng Biao in the minority of his community of Chinese dissidents on Twitter. Most were happy to support Trump. But Teng Biao wasn’t just anti-Trump. Everything about how he spoke revealed someone who was comfortable with the discourse of the American left, like when he talked about how his PhD and job as a professor in China helped him when he got here. And he said, unprompted, that he checks his privilege. 


Teng Biao: I do check my privilege. Many Chinese people who have to escape China feel it’s really difficult to have a new life in a totally different country. It’s not easy to do human rights in the United States and earn money. 


Alison Klayman: It was so refreshing to see in Teng Biao an alternate path for an exiled Chinese rights activist, one that felt politically more aligned with what I thought was right. It made for a lovely, feel good ending. Guangcheng’s path wasn’t inevitable. 


Colin Jones: And then, just as we were finishing this series, Teng Biao was accused of sexual assault from 2016. His accuser came forward in the midst of a MeToo movement that’s happening in Taiwan and includes other high profile activists. 


Yangyang Cheng: Based on the two accounts from the only two people at the scene. What we do know is that both Teng Biao and his accuser, a Taiwanese journalist, attended the same conference in India in 2016. The journalist needed to extend her stay, and Teng Biao offered her a room at a hotel. When she arrived at the room with her luggage, she found Teng Biao inside. The two accounts diverge on what happened next? The journalist says Teng Biao lunged at her multiple times and she had to scream and push him away. She calls it attempted rape in a public apology posted to his social media accounts. Teng Biao says he does not recall lunging at the journalist or restraining her from leaving. He describes what he did as, quote, “An extraordinarily clumsy courtship,” adding quote, “Regardless, my actions were unacceptable and unforgivable.” Teng Biao has since resigned from a number of nonprofit organizations dedicated to democracy and human rights in China. I am still reckoning with the revelation about Teng Biao, whose work I have followed and respected since my early adolescence. But my grief and anger are not just about one individual or one incident in this MeToo wave that has swept the Sinophone world. Multiple women have come forth with their experiences of sexual assault or harassment by prominent Chinese human rights lawyers and activists. In these cases, because the abuser and victim share a common adversary, the authoritarian Chinese state. The victim faces additional pressure against speaking out. Time and again, I hear this phrase, “gu da ju,” think about the big picture as if the cause of democracy and human rights is too important to be derailed by one misdeed. But whose democracy and whose rights? 


Colin Jones: We recorded all our interviews with Teng Biao before we knew about the accusation against him. Once we heard it, we talked about whether he belongs in the series at all, but we decided that he does and that so does the accusation. The questions we’ve been grappling with this whole series about Guangcheng are what do you do with someone who you feel betrayed the causes and values you idolize them for in the first place? And how do you think about everything they did up to that point? In light of what you know now, these questions are applicable here too. Teng Biao was quoting Vaclav Havel to us about living in truth. He not only played such a huge role in Guangcheng’s life, but also in pushing for legal reform and democracy in China. He represented a version of activism and protest that seemed to navigate the complexities of the last ten years, and he’s been accused of a sexual assault, which he denies. This is all his legacy, and there’s no other version to be had. It falls on us to reckon with it. We have to look at the picture shit and all and reach our own conclusions. Not necessarily about Teng Biao or Guangcheng, but about how to move forward in a world without heroes. 


Yangyang Cheng: I see both Teng Biao and Guangcheng as my Chinese elders. As I process my own reactions to Guangcheng’s bigotry and Teng Biao’s violence sexual assault accusation, I cannot say that I am disappointed. Disappointment implies an expectation, but such expectation will be presumptuous and indeed selfish. To look for hero is to evade collective responsibility. The burden of liberation can never be carried by one individual. Other forms of political activism are emerging among a new generation. For many young Chinese people, the end of 2022 marked a political coming out moment as protests erupted across China against the draconian zero-COVID policies and quickly spread to diaspora. In many places. The call to end COVID lockdowns morphed into demands for free expression and democratic governance. It’s the first time I heard my native tongue spoken in such a bold fashion in my birth country. Despite swift crackdowns from Chinese authorities, this moment of political awakening has been sustained among the younger generation of overseas Chinese. Many were taking part in their first protest. In what has been known as the White Paper movement, demonstrators held up a blank sheet of paper. This symbol of critique against state censorship can also be seen as a gesture of inclusivity, where different demands are heard, where the future is open to possibilities. Earlier generations of Chinese activism centered around a handful of charismatic individuals, most of whom were men. The White Paper movement, however, is largely anonymous and leaderless. Many participants are feminists or queer activists. They bring an admirable transnational consciousness, connecting aspirations for China with liberation struggles in different countries and continents. I do not want to over praise a nascent movement, but its very existence gives me hope. It would be wrong to call the White Paper protesters dissidents. I myself have never liked the term. It foregrounds the state as the opposition and limits the imagination. The label is so often conferred on people by those in the West who take liberal democracy for granted. It’s like saying you are not like them. You’re one of us. It assumes and affirms a false binary. Interestingly, Guangcheng himself does not think it’s a term that fits him either. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] Those are those who oppose dictators, dissidents, or are the dictators themselves dissidents? If the whole world sees those of us who oppose dictatorship as dissidents, I don’t think that’s quite the case. So you should think about it. 


Yangyang Cheng: Guangcheng considers a dissident to be someone swimming against the current, opposing the mainstream. A dissident by construct is in the minority. While standing up for freedom should be the majority position. I told Guangcheng that I take his point. But I do like the title of our show, Dissident at the Doorstep. The doorstep suggests an opening, a multitude of possibilities by walking through the door and crossing a border. Guangcheng is no longer a lone warrior under an authoritarian regime. By his own definition, he’s no longer in the minority. Guangcheng has emphasized that Beijing’s long arms reach well beyond its territorial bounds, and digital technologies have collapsed physical distances. So there is much work to do here in the US. Yet I cannot help but see an exiled fighter in search of a new fight. I do wonder why he joined the crowd on January 6th, whether Guangcheng was picturing himself again as a member of the persecuted minority, shining light and truth against oppressive machinery of the state. And I wonder, is this the kind of freedom you’re searching for? 


Colin Jones: I want to take you back to a document we talked about earlier in the series. It’s a State Department report about Guangcheng’s first visit to the US in 2003. That’s when he was invited as an emerging Chinese leader, not long before his first arrest in about a decade, before he became famous for his escape. During this trip, Guangcheng traveled all over the U.S. with his wife Weijing. Along with them was a handler from the State Department. This woman was also the author of the report, and her impressions of Guangcheng are strikingly familiar. She writes that Guangcheng was chatty and eloquent. She describes him as a passionate, smart spokesperson for the disabled in rural China. But she also doesn’t hesitate to note that, quote, “Mr. Chen could be belligerent, impatient and too demanding sometimes.” There’s one story that really stands out. During the trip, Guangcheng and Weijing spent several days in Burlington, Vermont. They’re from what it sounds like. He got into an intense fight with the staff at a hotel they were staying in. Their room smelled terrible and it was noisy. And if that wasn’t bad enough, when he and Weijing went to check out, they discovered the hotel wanted to charge them extra for the weekend nights they had stayed. For Guangcheng. That was it. He categorically refused to pay the difference and nothing could persuade him otherwise. Eventually, the hotel owner gave up. Here’s how the report’s author sums it all up. She writes the matter was settled, but Mr. Chen was still unhappy. Fighting was his nature. I had to laugh when I read this. This was definitely the same Guangcheng we’d gotten to know someone who does not back down when he believes he is right, no matter what. We all like to think that we stand up for what we believe in, but there really aren’t many of us who like Guangcheng. Will just never relent. In this way, he is totally unchanged. And it’s incredible to think about how far his doggedness has carried him from Dongshigu to the US embassy to the insurrection. There are only a handful of people in this world who could claim to have lived a life at such a huge, dramatic scale. I’m happy for the fact that Guangcheng has landed well, that he has a house and a job, and that his immediate family is safe. There are so many other Chinese activists for whom things have gone much worse, who are still in jail or who are dead in that way, he’s kind of the ultimate survivor. He’s overcome so much. We revere people like that who go through hell and emerge on the other side, but we tend to spend much less time thinking about the toll those experiences exact, a toll that also feels largely unprocessed by Guangcheng himself. 


Alison Klayman: In our final interview with him, we asked if he thought he might have been traumatized by all the horrible things that he had to endure. He said no. The only thing he really admits to is the physical pain. He could list broken ribs and feet and bouts of severe illness that went untreated while he was in detention. But Guangcheng doesn’t see any lasting emotional trauma. The only thing these experiences really did was harden his resolve. Yang Yang thought he was in denial about his trauma. She told Guangcheng that after trying experiences in her own life, she sometimes has nightmares or can get triggered by certain scenes. Then Guangcheng sort of softened. He said that he has nightmares too. It felt like he was admitting to some vulnerability. And over all the hours of interviews with him, I’d almost never heard him do this. His clarification was more on brand. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] That I do. For most people there nightmares. But for me, they’re not bad dreams. They’re dreams of rage. I’m often woken up by rage from my dreams. 


Alison Klayman: Guangcheng said he never has dreams about running away from something. He never has dreams where he’s scared. What he does have are dreams where he gets so angry he almost can’t stand it. In one of these dreams, hordes of communist thugs show up at his house while he’s lying in bed. They trash his library and take away his law books, and they search him while he’s just lying there. He wants to strangle them when this happens, he says he imagines grabbing one of the thugs by the neck and snapping it, but he knows he can’t. And so he lies there and seethes. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] When that happens. I get so angry my whole body trembles. 


Alison Klayman: So here are some ideas that Guangcheng does not identify with. Nightmares. Trauma. The title of dissident. Here’s one he is comfortable owning rage. It’s served him well, especially here in America, where rage is maybe the one public emotion that Americans of all stripes seem to share. But I also wonder if he’s at risk of being consumed by it. I hope for his sake that’s not the case. Dissident at the Doorstep is an original podcast from Crooked Media. Our hosts are Colin Jones, Yangyang Cheng and me Alison Klayman. From Crooked Media. Our executive producers are Tommy Vietor, Sarah Geismer and Katie Long, with special thanks to Mary Knauf and Alison Falzetta. Our senior producer is Maria Byrne and Meg Cramer. Maura Walz is our story editor. Our producer is Wudan Yan. Our associate producers are Boen Wang and Sydney Rapp. Translation by Valerie C, with additional translation by Yangyang Cheng and Richard Yeh. Voiceovers by Richard Yeh. Our fact checker is Tamika Adams. Sound design and mixing by Hannis Brown original score by Ilan Isakov and our podcast Art is by John Lee.