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?
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.
Two years later, I returned to Dongshigu to report for Newsweek on a cover story about the bare-foot-lawyers – farmers who had taught themselves some legal knowledge and were using it to protect the interests of themselves and others. Although they lacked the sophistication of licensed lawyers, such bare-foot-lawyers were making a difference in the local community, not unlike the “bare-foot-doctors” under Chairman Mao who provided basic and badly needed medical service in China’s vast countryside. Several such farmer lawyers were inspired by Chen.
Partly thanks to Newsweek’s cover story, I believe, Chen was selected to take part in the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor’s Program in 2003. During his tour of the U.S., he met and made firm friends, including renowned New York University Professor Jerome Cohen who truly appreciated Chen’s efforts in promoting the rule of law in China’s countryside.
Though by then I had moved temporarily to London, I followed Chen’s progress closely. After his return from his morale boosting U.S. trip, Chen attracted plenty of media attention with a series of cases he fought. China Youth Daily praised him as “a blind modern citizen with a very bright heart.” Another journalist estimated that from 1996 to 2005 when he lost his freedom, Chen had helped some 3,000 people with legal consultation or representation. All free of charge.
“A pig fears getting too fat,” warns the traditional wisdom. Chen’s increased fame as well as his increased activities brought him trouble. In 2005, Chen, together with his wife, investigated and exposed the widespread forced abortions and other brutal measures imposed by local family planning officials. A year later, he was sentenced foran incongruous crime of “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic.”
Upon his release four years later, Chen found himself a prisoner in his own house, which I always associated with the warmth and hospitality of his family on the several occasions I stayed over. Like many, I greeted his victorious escape with joy, but grew concerned about his next move. He was sheltered at the U.S. embassy for six days before being transferred to a hospital for treatment. Chen then decided to accept the suggestion of going to America to study.
I totally understand that Chen has to put his family interests first, and he is absolutely entitled to have a “leave of absence” from his work as he put it. I also have no doubt that his study in the United States will enrich his life and develop himself further. But I do hope that he will be allowed to return to China. If he stays abroad for too long, Chen risks slipping into obscurity like so many dissidents before him, especially in light of his limited English and his blindness. Chinese farmers, most vulnerable to social justice, won’t be able to reach him easily.
A few years ago, I interpreted for dissident writer Ma Jian during a talk in London. When asked if living in a free country had been good for his writing, Ma replied: “I’ve gained a free sky over my head, but lost the soil I stood on.”
I know Chen isn’t, strictly speaking, a dissident. He isn’t even a licensed lawyer. Chen won some of the cases he represented but lost others. However, in a broad sense, each case was a victory regardless of the result because, in each situation, the rule of law was practiced and extended; and the rights awareness of those involved increased. Unfortunately, his very success also saw him fall victim to local officials’ obsession with weiweng – maintaining stability. And they were all too willing to break the law in order to silence him.
Our leaders have repeatedly talked about building a modern society, which can only mean a more democratic society ruled by law. Chen has been an inspiration and a driving force in implanting the rule of law. Why can’t China tolerate someone like him? He shouldn’t be treated like an eyesore to be rid of. China should be proud of having produced this bright and honest son.
Lijia Zhang is a writer and public speaker. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Observer, the Guardian and South China Morning Post.