BEIJING: Most dissidents in China have to face a simple but potentially life-changing question at some point in their lives: Should I stay or should I go?
By Peh Shing Huei, China Bureau Chief
The answer, unfortunately, is not as straightforward.
As the Chen Guangcheng incident has shown, deciding whether to leave China and go into exile is an extremely tough call.
Many who leave do so for personal safety reasons. Others opt to stay, hoping to make a difference at home. They know that once they are exiled abroad, their influence will wane.
SOME FAMOUS DISSIDENTS ABROAD
1 Fang Lizhi, 76
China's leading astrophysicist sought refuge at the US embassy in Beijing after the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. The authorities said his speeches helped incite the protests. He and his wife Li Shuxian were named in warrants that could have seen them get the death sentence if convicted.
They stayed at the embassy for 13 months before China let them leave in 1990. The couple settled in the US and Mr Fang taught at the University of Arizona. He died last month.
2 Wei Jingsheng, 51
The democracy activist was a soldier whose faith in China's communist order was shaken by Mao Zedong's ruinous policies. He spent 17 years in prison for urging reforms.
He was released in 1993 as China pursued the chance to host the 2000 Olympics, but was arrested again after the bid failed. The US negotiated his release in 1997, and he was granted medical parole. He lives in Washington.
3 Rebiya Kadeer, 63
After an early career as an entrepreneur, during which she became a millionaire, the Uighur was arrested in 1999 for endangering state security. Released in 2005, shortly before a visit to China by then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, she now heads the World Uighur Congress and lives in the US.
4 Wang Dan, 43
Another Tiananmen student leader, he was arrested after the Tiananmen crackdown and released in 1998 on medical parole. He left for the US and graduated from Harvard University with a doctorate in history in 2008. He lives in Los Angeles.
5 Wu'er Kaixi, 44
The Tiananmen student leader drew global attention when he harangued then-Premier Li Peng during a televised meeting. He fled China with the help of a secret network and now lives in Taiwan, where he is a businessman and political commentator.
6 Liao Yiwu, 54
The writer and former political prisoner fled to Germany in July last year after a secretive journey with stops in Vietnam and Poland. The Chinese authorities had been especially harsh towards his previous efforts to leave the country to attend literary festivals and other events, blocking him from travelling overseas more than a dozen times.
7 Wan Yanhai, 48
Mr Wan founded a prominent Aids advocacy group in China but fled to the US in 2010, leaving during a business trip to Hong Kong with his wife and child. Tighter regulations on overseas donations to Chinese aid groups hurt his work, he said.
8 Yu Jie, 38
He wrote a book critical of the Premier called China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao, and helped to start the Independent PEN Centre in China, which fights for freedom of expression.
He left in January for the US after being beaten up and detained several times last year.
The blind legal activist was adamant that he did not want to leave his country during his stay in the United States embassy in Beijing, but changed his mind after leaving the secured compound last week.
Following a deal that Chinese and American officials struck late last week, Mr Chen is likely to head to the US to study, accompanied by his wife and two young children. If that should happen, it is as yet unclear if he could return to China.
Other Chinese dissidents who came before the 40-year-old self-taught lawyer in the last three decades would probably have gone through the same pro-cess of soul-searching deliberation.
For many, the decision to leave one's own country has almost always been motivated by the desire for personal safety and an end to the persecution of the individual and his or her family.
In Mr Chen's case, he now wants to go to the US because he is afraid that the Chinese authorities will not keep their word on not putting him and his family under house arrest again.
Similarly, writer Yu Jie, who published a scathing biography of Premier Wen Jiabao, left for the United States in January after he was harassed, abducted and severely beaten by security forces.
'After over a year of inhumane treatment and painful struggle, I had no choice but to leave China,' he said in a statement.
Still, others opt to stay because of their aim to make a difference in their home country and their belief that they can do more to defend the rights of their fellow citizens by remaining in China.
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 Mr Wang also believes that the Internet and globalisation 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 Mr 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 US. 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 Mr Liu Xiaobo. The 2010 Nobel Peace laureate chose to return to China from the US during the Tiananmen protests and was thrown behind bars several times.
Even after his most recent arrest in 2009, Mr 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'.