Chen Guangcheng, the blind rights activist, finally left Beijing for the United States late last month with his wife and two children. The 40 year-old is going to study law at New York University, which has offered him a fellowship. It seems a happy ending to a diplomatic drama between China and the United States, one sparked by Chen’s dramatic escape from house arrest and his seeking refuge at the U.S. Embassy.
Actually, Chen left with mixed feelings, worrying about the safety of his extended family. And some of his supporters also worry that he might have embarked on a journey that will see him sliding into irrelevance. The Chinese authorities will, most likely, prevent him from returning, the same way they’ve treated other dissidents.
With his departure, will his voice still be heard in his homeland?Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Chen in early 2000, through a friend at the British Embassy in Beijing. Back then, he was student at Nanjing Traditional Medicine University, but he had recently been lobbying for the closure of a polluting paper mill near his village Dongshigu, in central China’s Shandong Province, and was in the capital to convince the embassy to fund a well to provide drinking water for the villagers.
The three of us met at the Starbucks by the Friendship Store. Chen wore his signature dark glasses, his chin tilting slightly upwards, and his thin frame clad in a worn blue tunic which didn’t conceal his handsomeness. When we shook hands, he held mine for a few moments as if that was his way of “seeing” people. He smiled readily and talked eloquently. Once he began to tell me his story, I was intrigued.
The two characters of Chen’s given name guangcheng mean “bright,” and “honest.” The youngest of five brothers, he told me he lost his sight before the age of two after a severe fever. Refusing to be locked up inside the house, like other blind children, he ran around freely, climbing trees and catching fish. His father would sometimes read to him classic novels such as Water Margin. One of his fantasies was to become a chivalrous xiake – knight-errant – to uphold justice.
Although his childhood was happy, he experienced the pain of discrimination early on. Bullies would hit him for no reason, run away and everyone would have a laugh. He endured the taunts at first, but soon decided to take matters into his own hands. Chen would snatch opportunities to punish the bullies – he always remembered their voices.
Chen didn’t start his education until he was 17 – only about 5 percent of blind Chinese, by some estimates, have the opportunity to receive an education – after his brother heard about a school for the blind in the nearby town Linyi. There, he studied text books, but also basic skills such as threading needles. In a competition, he threaded 10 needles in 50 seconds.
He went to Qingdao for his secondary school education. In his spare time, he began to listen to Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, which opened up a new world to him and planted the seeds of right consciousness in him. Since he was one of the better educated in the village, villagers often turned to him for legal advice. He didn’t always have ready answers so he decided to study law by himself.
It was in 1996 that Chen took the law as his weapon for the first time. He initially complained to the local authority that his family was forced to pay an agricultural tax he ought to be exempted from due to his disability. After being rejected, he brought his case to Beijing’s petitioning office. To his surprise, the tax was later refunded. This small victory spurred him to take on more legal actions, including the campaign against the paper mill.
A few months after our first meeting, I travelled with the British diplomat to Shandong as a stringer for the Independent to report on the case. Upon arrival, we were hijacked by the chief of Yinan county to attend a banquet stuffed with stir-fried silkworms, crispy scorpions and fiery white liquor. The chief informed us that the pollution was no longer a problem, therefore there was no need to visit the village. He then ordered us to stay at the county’s guesthouse instead of Chen’s house as originally planned. Chen was outraged. His thin lips quivering, he said: “Let them to choose where they want to stay.” I knew how much courage it took to stand up to his local officials.
Later, in the village, we observed the damage done by the paper mill, some twenty kilometers upstream. The machines had stopped running during our stay but the untreated water had destroyed corn and melon fields and caused widespread skin problems. The British Embassy agreed to pay 15,000 pounds towards the digging of a motor-pumped well. Another victory to Chen.
During our visit, I noticed that people would sometimes come to visit him or telephone him to ask all sorts of questions, some legal, some medical and others regarding government policies. Chen was making a name for himself.