As China's president attended a summit in California, some of the most prominent international critics of his government gathered in the Mexican War Streets to tell Pittsburghers about the conditions that drove them into exile.
Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer whose escape from home confinement to the U.S. Embassy last year caused a diplomatic crisis, said there comes a time when you've got to knuckle under or leave -- and he just couldn't see giving in to his government's bullying.
"If you decide to kneel down, tomorrow he will ask you to bow to him," he told several hundred people gathered under a tent. "A dictatorship will never be satisfied with what you do for it."
The all-day Exiled Voices of China and Tibet event was produced by City of Asylum of Pittsburgh, a 9-year-old program that hosts writers-in-residence who face persecution in their homelands.
While his 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter alternately played on a tablet computer and darted about Monterey Street, and his wife, Yuan Weijing, shot video, Mr. Chen spoke of his family's years of imprisonment in their home.
Once celebrated in China as an example of achievement by a disabled man, Mr. Chen fell into disfavor when he began challenging, in court, the forced abortions and sterilizations of the one-child policy.
Law in China, he said through a translator, "is a tool of the government." Party chieftains, he said, "are really like emperors from back in time," with no legal accountability.
When he persisted, he was imprisoned for four years, then put under house arrest. At all times, he said, dozens of guards surrounded his flood-lit house, preventing would-be visitors -- including actor Christian Bale and New York Times reporter Andrew Jacobs -- from reaching him. When a video describing his treatment was posted online, he and his wife were beaten.
His escape to the embassy led to his exile in New York, where his family eventually joined him. He said he's still waiting for the Chinese government's promised investigation of his treatment while on house arrest.
He wasn't confident that U.S. pressure would lead to improvements in human rights in China, but sounded a note of optimism. "I feel that the change in China has already started," he said. "The Chinese people are starting to realize that they have rights and they have to fight for rights."
Though the Chinese government works vigorously to control use of the Internet, the web is nonetheless challenging the propaganda machine, said Tienchi Martin-Liao, president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, which aids writers, and an exile in Germany for a quarter-century.
"Nowadays in China, you can overcome the firewall," she said. "You can read whatever you want," though most people don't take the needed steps to do that.
On China's millions of microblogs, she said, "everybody is complaining that the government is bad, is corrupt. [Officials] don't care, as long as you don't fight them."
The Chinese government does, however, delete critical microblog posts when it can find them, she said. Last month, according to press reports, the government started shutting down the microblogs of some prominent intellectuals.
She said she sees few signs that new President Xi Jinping will loosen the Communist Party's grip on society.
Mr. Jacobs, the Times' Beijing bureau chief, said there is a psychological dynamic in the Chinese leadership that could motivate change -- but is so far serving primarily to drive public relations.
"Despite China's economic might and its growing military might, the thing China really wants is to be loved," he said. "It's one thing being a world power. But if you're a world power and no one loves you, what's the point?"
That's why, he said, the Chinese government is spending $6 billion on public relations and sponsoring hundreds of Confucius Institutes -- there's one at the University of Pittsburgh -- that teach Chinese culture and language.
Elizabeth Baisley, marketing manager for City of Asylum, said the day's various events drew registered attendees numbering between 200 and 300, with the largest number signed up for the evening concert with Chinese poet Huang Xiang, Tibetan rockers Melong Band and Pittsburgh hip-hop artist Jasiri X. She said the day's lineup drew attendees from New York, Connecticut and Ohio.
"There are a lot of people who are really interested in these issues," and in dissent in China and elsewhere, said World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh president Steven Sokol, who opened the event by conducting a conversation with Ms. Tienchi. "Having all of [the attendees] here in one day is phenomenal for any city."
Poet Liao Yiwu, a survivor of Chinese prison who now lives in Germany, was the most radical voice.
He said through a translator that China should be "split up into many countries." Asked by an attendee whether he was aware of the bloodshed brought by civil wars, including America's, he did not back down.
"Every time there is an overthrow of dynasty, there is blood that needs to be shed," Mr. Liao said.
Playing traditional instruments including a set of metal bowls that alternately clanged and droned, he chanted and howled through several haunting musical numbers. Between his performances, Paul Guggenheimer, a radio journalist with 90.5 WESA-FM, read selections from Mr. Liao's writing, including an interview with a "professional mourner" that was pitch perfect at a gathering tinged with the grief of exile.
The professional mourner "can mourn as long as is requested," Mr. Guggenheimer read. "'How long can you wail? What was your record?' 'Two days and two nights.' ... Frankly speaking, the hired mourners are the ones who can stick to the end."
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1542 or on Twitter @richelord.