It was April 22nd, in the dark of night, in Dongshigu, the village in eastern China’s Shandong Province where activist Chen Guangcheng lived under extrajudicial house arrest. The moon was rising but not even half full. That made no difference for Chen, who has been blind since a childhood illness stole his sight. But it would work to his advantage, as he contemplated something that could very well get him killed.
After enduring 19 months of what he described (in videos smuggled onto YouTube) as a brutal detainment that included constant harassment, isolation, and attacks on himself, his wife (Yuan Weijing), and his entire family, Chen, according to dissident sources, concluded that escape was his only option.
And escape he did. While State Department and US Embassy officials decline to comment, it is widely believed the Chen Guangcheng is under US protection in Beijing. Dissident sources within the activist network in China and the US say that top-level meetings have continued on both sides since news of Chen’s escape became public on Friday.
China is refusing all comment, and, as of this writing, there has been no mention of Chen’s story in any official Chinese publications, including online. In the immediate hours after the story broke, search terms including “blind man” and “UA898,” the United Airlines flights Chen was rumored to be on en route to the US, were blocked.
But silence will not serve either side for very long.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to arrive in Beijing very early Wednesday morning, in advance of this week’s US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue meetings. The two-day talks begin Thursday, giving Clinton an entire day to address the crisis directly with Chinese leaders before the scheduled sessions. Kurt Campbell, the top US diplomat for East Asia, has already touched down in Beijing earlier than planned to broach the issue ahead of Clinton’s arrival. Normally rather scripted affairs, the high-profile S&ED talks have given Chen’s case an added urgency, as Chinese and American diplomats try to reach a solution that does not disrupt the other important issues at stake.
The challenge on the US side will be finding a resolution on Chen’s future while maintaining positive political dialogue. The Obama administration has long called for human rights reform in China. As recently as last November, Clinton herself singled Chen out by name in citing the widespread human rights abuses in China that the US would like to see ended. Yet the White House also faces a host of critical issues to engage Beijing on, from Iran and North Korea to trade and currency exchange, not to mention a Republican presidential opponent that accuses the administration of being “soft” on China.
From Beijing’s side, the timing of Chen’s escape could hardly be worse. The big news out of China in 2012 was supposed to be this fall’s meticulously planned, once-in-a-decade leadership transition. Instead, the Bo Xilai scandal has now become the biggest news out of China in years. Having ousted the powerful politician as a lone corrupt official, China’s leadership has managed to keep this scandal below the level of a full-fledged international incident, even though it involves the alleged murder of a British citizen and was touched off when Wang Lijun, a former Bo aide caught in the scandal, sought protection at the US consulate in Chengdu—then, according to both sides, left of his own accord.
But Wang was part of the government apparatus, whereas Chen is a compelling human rights figure whose work has long been championed by the US. Negotiations over his future could involve a heated confrontation between the two countries. And Beijing will have trouble explaining why it regularly downplayed and silently condoned the house arrest (and alleged abuse) of a popular blind human rights activist even after he had served his original four-year sentence, itself likely unjustified.
In the face of official silence, Chen and his signature sunglasses have become the symbol of China’s dismal human rights record, much to the government’s chagrin. According to his friend and fellow activist Hu Jia, Chen seemingly acknowledges his potency at home by saying that he wants to stay in China, where presumably he can be a more powerful resistance figure.
A self-taught human rights lawyer, Chen became an international symbol of Chinese repression in 2006. The previous year, with a growing record of successful anticorruption advocacy behind him, Chen filed a rare, class-action lawsuit, accusing local officials in his hometown province of carrying out forced abortions and sterilizations of women in rural communities under China’s one-child policy. In 2006, he was convicted on charges including public disorder and sent to prison for four years. Upon his release, a different kind of prison followed: he and his family were put under 24-hour surveillance. He has said they were subject to repeated abuse, denied medical attention, and had their communications capabilities jammed and outside visitors forbidden from making contact. In a video released last week, Chen said his captors told him that more than 60 million yuan ($9.5 million) was spent on keeping the Chen family in total lockdown.
Earlier this year, together with his wife, Chen began to plan the improbable: an escape by a blind man in poor health out from under the constant surveillance of multiple guards, security cameras, and a high barrier wall into the nighttime countryside. He would be lucky to make it that far, and it would only be the beginning.
Bob Fu, founder of the Texas-based religious and political advocacy group China Aid, has known the Chen family for years and has been in touch with those who aided in the escape.
“He prepared for months,” Fu said in a phone interview earlier this week, “and his wife supported him.”
Reports say that Chen spent hours in bed over the course of weeks to convince guards he was ill so they would not immediately suspect his absence. Ultimately it was decided that Yuan Weijing, Chen’s wife, would stay behind—either for reasons relating to her health and physical capability or so that she would not be separated from their six-year-old daughter, Chen Kesi, or another extenuating factor. The couple also has a ten-year-old son living with relatives in another county.
It is believed Chen managed to evade his captors late Sunday evening. A friend and fellow activist, Hu Jia, who was detained and questioned by police after news of Chen’s escape broke, told the Wall Street Journal that Chen told him he was injured when he scaled the barrier wall surrounding his home but continued on.
Describing the dramatic journey that followed, Fu said it is possible that Chen was helped only by a small handful of supporters, as opposed to a sophisticated and vast underground network dispatched to relay points from Dongshigu to Beijing.
Chen’s innate knowledge of the village itself, Fu said, made the difference. “He knows Dongshigu, which small roads lead to the field and which lead to the wood, but the man is still a miracle and it was a tremendous undertaking.” According to Fu, Chen had to cross a river and walk for miles all the while knowing that he, a well-known figure, could be caught at any moment.
A young female activist named He Peirong would be the critical link, giving Chen a ride to Beijing, where he could far more easily disappear into the phalanx of China’s capital city. With help, according to Fu, Chen connected with He, a 30-something activist who became involved in fighting corruption in China after the earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008.
“When she saw him, he looked like a poor beggar,” Fu said. “He was bloody, he had water all over him and he was trembling. He had walked for hours … and he really did not know if he would make it.”
Eventually, the young woman informed Fu that she had delivered Chen to the next person in the relay chain. Sometime after, she posted a message about her journey on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter), saying that Chen was now in Beijing—either in safe hands or detained. By Friday evening, He’s Weibo account had been blocked and she had been taken into custody. She has not been seen nor heard from since.
It would be left to Bob Fu to clarify things, and he did, releasing a statement through his organization, China Aid, saying that Chen was “100%” safe. In the dissident community, that phrase is understood to indicate one thing: US protection.
“The worst thing I can see would be for the US to let up, China could play a trick and say, ‘Yes, he is a free man, we guarantee it,’” said Fu. “But you could imagine the US saying, ‘OK, he is a Chinese citizen,’ and then letting him go. It is very unlikely, given Secretary Clinton’s emphasis [on human rights reform in China], but it would be a nightmare that I don’t want to see.”
But dissident sources have emphasized from the beginning that Chen is intent on staying in China. It is worth nothing that in the video he released this week on YouTube he accuses the local authorities in his hometown of the abuses committed against him. He prevails on Premier Wen Jiabao to investigate and cleanse China of these and similarly unjust practices.
The door could therefore be open for the two countries to find a face-saving way for the Chinese government to allow Chen and his family to stay in the country by vowing to hold those responsible for breaking the law accountable in court. China comes out the savior; the US doesn’t risk alienating a partner. But whether the US and China could agree on how to guarantee Chen’s freedom and safety is not at all clear.
Like so many before him, Chen faces a dissident’s dilemma: seek asylum in a country where you will be safe but irrelevant or stay home where your voice will be heard but your future will be uncertain.
The brave Mr. Chen should be commended for pursuing the latter.