“I am a Chinese from China living in Paris, not a Chinese from the 13th district”

November 8th 2007

Wearing jeans and a black turtleneck, Cai Chongguo receives with self-assurance and a laid-back attitude in his smoke-filled studio in the 15th district of Paris. Chinese posters on his front door hide an uncluttered interior, with a few books strewn on a rudimentary writing desk. Since his arrival in France, on July 14th 1989, he has “always lived there”. And purposely not in the Chinese district. “I am a Chinese from China living in Paris, not a Chinese from the 13th district ». Exiled in France since the tragic events of Tian An Men Square, this garrulous Chinese dissident from Wuhan is unfailing, not ashamed to display the weakness of his French to whoever expresses some interest about his experience.

He remembers becoming a dissident in the 1970s, when he was about 18. “My 18th birthday was unforgettable for two reasons. First, I became member of Communist Party, and second, I became intellectually independent, because I start criticizing politics of government in my notebook”. A contradiction that he entirely assumes. “Adhere Communist Party was never a question of ideology. It was rare opportunity of upward mobility”. His love of philosophy and his critical thinking never prevented him from being a pragmatic. Neither in China, nor in France.

In May 1989, when he joined the student movement of Tian An Men as a philosophy teacher at Wuhan University, he strongly believed in the possibility of the so-called “Beijing Spring” to give birth to a larger movement of democratization. But when he witnessed the brutal repression of the movement in Beijing, he immediately convened local students of his hometown, to convince them to stop occupying the central plaza. “Go back home, I told them”. That very meeting cost him his right to remain on the Chinese soil. And compelled him to leave his family behind, including his two-year-old son. Now, his commitment as a dissident in exile rests upon similar pragmatic principles. “There are two ways to criticize, I advocate concrete and pragmatic one, not ideological one”. Hence the moderation of his political discourse. “For me, most important is social democracy. And its pillar is independent trade union. Political democracy will follow.”

No way Chongguo would make his the word of his friend and sinologist Marie Holzman, according to which exile is “a violation of humanity”. “I don’t blame life. I am opposed to determinism and fatalism.” If his low command of French is on its own a symptom of the dissident’s isolation, he refuses to use such a word. “My curiosity helped me a lot, because I look at present and future. I am not locked in past like other dissidents in exile”. He indeed keeps his life very busy, working for China Labour Bulletin, an online newspaper which aims at informing Chinese workers about their rights, speaking regularly on the Chinese sections of international radios, writing his blog, etc. When asked how he would define himself, he advances a timid “somebody who is interested in philosophy”, and lengthily thinks before adding: “A committed dissident”. No reference whatsoever to his statelessness.

“Thanks to my work, I am permanently between two worlds. I am very Chinese, and very much French too”. Without apparent tugging. “On the contrary” he strongly asserts. “I don’t believe in social conventions. You can be more Chinese than a Chinese in China, and at the same time more French than a French”. That is at least the kind of language he repeats to his 20 years-old son, who joined him in France five years ago.

But his statute of exile is never far. When asked if he would support a boycott of the Olympics in China, he answers: “I hesitate, I always hesitate.” Just before adding in the same blow: “I live perpetually in uncertainty. Life in exile is like that”. If returning to continental China is still not an option for him, Cai Chongguo is considering moving to Hong Kong. “But to return to China, I must try to become French first”. A sad irony that makes him laugh.

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