Fang Lizhi, physicist and dissident, died Friday at the age of 76 in the US. Fang's influence has been gradually fading in recent years, a fate shared by many other dissidents who left for the US in the last two decades.
Western support to dissidents has been regarded as an influential force in contemporary China. The batch of dissidents who charted the same route as Fang failed to make a splash. A few of them died quietly abroad. This perhaps is not what they had imagined at the beginning.
External influences are exerting less pressure on China as the country continues to grow. It appears that the Internet is bringing foreign ideas to the fore, but the direction of China's reform and development is firmly in the hands of the Chinese people.
When China was too weak to compete with the West, external support of the elite was less politically driven. With China's rise, this kind of support has been gradually upgraded to complement the West's geopolitical competition with China. The West expects dissidents, with their influence on the public, to maintain or increase their confrontation with the Chinese government. That is the tradeoff of their Western protection.
The Dalai Lama is another good example. He has been supported by the West for decades. Except for his seemingly glorified status, his real mission is hopeless. He has created trouble for the Chinese government but this will not make a difference to history.
Other emigrate "elites" have no better life than that of the Dalai. Their pursuit is contrary to China's growth, which led to their influence quickly disappearing after their departure, foreboding their faint political prospects.
Reform in China has created room for political diversity. There are increasing legal methods for activists to cast their influence. Many choose to advance China's democracy within this legal framework. Confrontation is pointless.
Dissidents relying on Western support will be less and less accepted by Chinese society as competition with the West intensifies. Individual power can be amplified if one supports and advances China's revival. Otherwise, one wastes talent and life on a meaningless mission.