Citizen Chen

How a Chinese legal activist became an icon of freedom.

Click here to see the images that are turning Chen into an icon. 

After six days of negotiations between the United States and China, blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Wednesday afternoon. Details remain sparse, but the deal is already proving controversial. Chen apparently told reporters that he believed his wife would be beaten to death if he stayed in the embassy. Zeng Jinyan, the wife of prominent dissident Hu Jia, told Foreign Policy, "I can confirm without doubt that I spoke to both Chen and Yuan [Chen's wife]. Yuan told me she was frightened. Chen said he did not want to leave the embassy and did so because officials threatened to send his family back [to his hometown, where he was under de facto house arrest] if he refused." Wang Xuezhen, a Shandong-based activist who has campaigned for Chen's release, told FP, "It's now clear from several friends that Chen feels threatened." In an interview with CNN, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who helped negotiate the case, insisted Chen left the embassy of his own free will.

But by being unable to guarantee protection for Chen or his family, the State Department has shown the limits of the United States' human rights engagement with a man who, to the small group of dissidents, activists, and intellectuals who represent China's best hope for a democratic future, is an icon of freedom.

Chen is a hero to China's growing community of liberal activists. FP spoke with a number of Chen supporters, whose views have often been lost amid the flurry of reporting over the diplomatic efforts to free the blind activist. "He's a very pure moral voice" in a land where moral power is "weak," said a Beijing-based columnist and author.

"In one of my drawings, he's the tank man, standing in front of the tank. In another, he's seemingly distraught and helpless, just like the people who tried to help him," said a cartoonist, the creator of a popular series of sketches about Chen and modern Chinese life, who asked to remain anonymous.

Upon learning the news of Chen's fears for his safety after leaving the embassy, one activist said only, "I'm so sad about this."

Born in 1971, Chen, who lost his sight in infancy from a fever, studied acupuncture and massage, a common career for the blind in China. His first legal success came when he petitioned for and received a tax refund that his parents shouldn't have had to pay because of his disability. In 2005, armed with allegations that officials in the city of Linyi engaged in compulsory sterilization and forced abortions, Chen took his case to the country's capital.

From the beginning, fear of Chen characterized the government's response. The Communist Party had "always wanted to separate the farming class from the intellectuals," said Chan Koonchung, a former magazine publisher and author of The Fat Years, a dystopian look at China's future. "Now the farming class had its own intellectual." Local officials, presumably afraid of the negative attention, detained Chen and held him under house arrest. He managed to escape, consulting the I Ching, an ancient Chinese book of divination, to determine when would be the most auspicious time to flee. "We don't know much about his inner world," said the Beijing-based columnist. "His story is a lot like a fairy tale, full of symbolic power."

Local officials found him in the capital, beat him, and dragged him back to Linyi; later a court in Beijing sentenced him to four years and three months in prison for the crime of "damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic." International recognition for Chen came with the media attention in 2005; Time magazine named him one of its 100 most influential people in 2006; major human rights awards followed. Released from prison in 2010, he was placed under house arrest in his home village of Dongshigu and guarded by dozens of plainclothes enforcers, who prohibited outsiders from entering the village.

The tale of an innocent blind man suffering injustice spread. "When I heard about this, I felt the same way that everyone in China with a conscience felt," said a Beijing-based poet who asked for anonymity. "I felt powerless, disappointed, and angry."

Brave Chinese attempted to visit him and were violently repulsed by security forces guarding his house. Batman actor Christian Bale tried to see Chen in December, telling the CNN film crew that accompanied him that he wanted to meet him to "shake his hand and say what an inspiration he is." At times cruelty descended into farce: Five disabled people reportedly attempted to visit Chen; the thugs guarding the village attacked them. Chen and his family were regularly beaten. Chan postulated that local officials had convinced some high-ranking officials in Beijing that he represented the dangerous union of urban intellectuals and peasant champions.

Chen became a rallying point for the activist community. Artist and provocateur Ai Weiwei selected Chen for Wired's 2012 list of "50 People Who Will Change the World." Prominent human rights lawyers adopted a drawing of Chen behind bars as their Twitter avatars. The cartoonist, who goes by the pseudonym "Crazy Crab," organized an online campaign, collecting hundreds of portraits of men, women, and children wearing dark glasses; many held signs asking for Chen's freedom.

"When I first heard about him, I thought he was just a 'sacrificial object' of human rights campaigns," the cartoonist said by email. "But the more I learned about him, the more I respect him." With Chen's uncertain release, the cartoonist expressed dismay that China had played such an "ugly role" in the incident by refusing to apologize or admit wrongdoing about Chen's case. The small community of Chinese intellectuals, dissidents, and NGO workers faces the problem that the general public "just doesn't care" about Chen, the Beijing-based columnist lamented, comparing their isolation to that of dissidents in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Others familiar with Chen's case do not support him, seeing him as a pawn in America's interference in China. Hu Xijin, editor in chief of jingoistic tabloid Global Times, commented on Weibo, China's popular microblogging service, that "the flexibility of the Chinese government" will determine Chen's fate and that U.S. support and protection is "useless." State media almost never mention Chen, and his name remains censored on Weibo; presumably to get around censors, Hu wrote Chen's name as ChenCG.

Chen is also blocked on Youku, China's biggest video-sharing site. A recent search showed only seven results for Chen, five of the videos showing the Chinese Foreign Ministry's response to the Chen case, and two posted five months ago featuring Sima Nan, an outspoken television commentator viewed by liberals in China the same way their American counterparts view Rush Limbaugh. Sima bitterly complained in the video that the Chen case shows the United States "bullying China" and characterized the Chen case as "the United States opening fire in the war of perception with China," a battle still being played out in Beijing.

Michael Anti, a Beijing-based activist and former Nieman fellow at Harvard University, said that "a blind person can escape from 100 people detention and make it to the embassy in Beijing for freedom -- it's very iconic." But with his fate uncertain, Chen the flesh-and-blood activist may still be in danger.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images


Obama's Smart Diplomacy in China

The United States did the right thing in cutting a deal to save blind activist Chen Guangcheng. But his case highlights just how much progress China needs to make on human rights.

A week ago, no one would have predicted that the future of U.S.-China relations could lie in the hands of a blind Chinese human rights defender. But for the moment, U.S.-China ties will be shaped less by currency machinations or Security Council votes than by the fate of dissident legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who upended plans for this week's U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue with a Houdini-like escape out of de facto house arrest and into the arms of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

With his second act on Wednesday, Chen joins the ranks of the world's great escape artists. His dramatic departure from the U.S. Embassy on May 2, escorted by not one, but three U.S. Embassy officials, is a hopeful sign that principled U.S. support for rule of law in China can yield results. Chen was  driven to a nearby hospital and reunited with his family; he will be allowed to enroll in university to study law.

Amnesty International will join many human rights groups, inside and outside China, in monitoring whether Chen is allowed to act out this new script -- one of his own design.

Chen's escape from house arrest presented the United States with a dilemma: grant him asylum and risk angering a rising power at a key moment in its development, or send him packing without adequate protections, undermining long-standing U.S. support for human rights in China and around the world.

President Barack Obama apparently chose "none of the above." It was a wise choice.

Now is the time to remind the Chinese that human rights, long viewed as a luxury indulged in only when it does not conflict with core issues of security and prosperity, permeate U.S.-China relations. A China that denies the rights in its own constitution unsurprisingly does not share U.S. indignation at President Bashar al-Assad's brutality in Syria. A China that blames the self-immolation of monks in Tibet on outside agitation rather than injustice will not push Burma to respect its ethnic minorities. What progress can be made on "rebalancing" trade or tackling global warming while China's workers are barred from organizing? Chen bunking on U.S. premises was a physical manifestation of a long-standing reality: Human rights concerns are embedded in debates over security, economics, and power relations.

With nearly half Obama's cabinet in China this week for talks on everything from North Korean nukes to intellectual property theft, a champion of China's least powerful sought refuge in the one place where he knew he could feel safe.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who was sent early to Beijing to defuse a brewing diplomatic crisis, no doubt studied the case of dissident physicist Fang Lizhi, who was holed up in the U.S. Embassy for more than a year after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests before U.S. Ambassador James Lilley and President George H.W. Bush negotiated his departure from China. That yearlong standoff did not impose a great cost on the already frosty post-Tiananmen bilateral relationship.

Fang's departure from China in 1990 was a satisfactory outcome for him personally. He and his wife settled in Tucson, where he joined the University of Arizona faculty and returned to the study of his beloved astrophysics until his death on April 6. But like most Chinese dissidents who move abroad, Fang sacrificed his ability to influence events in China, depriving the Middle Kingdom of a much-needed advocate for change. His exile was a blow to the cause of human rights in China.

In 2012, it was inconceivable that the United States and China could let the Chen case drag on for a year or more. The two powers are now intertwined globally, and there are leadership transitions/elections coming to both countries this fall.

It must have been extremely tempting for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and her point man, Campbell, to try to whisk Chen and his family out of China as soon as possible. But they listened to the voice of Chen and his advocates, demonstrating their commitment to a process of engagement with China that is rooted in the belief that China is capable of change.

The United States should not view the Chen case as a "distraction" from the more important business to be done in Beijing. Instead, it should focus on the real objective: candid conversation with the Chinese government about the intersection of human rights with what the United States hopes to accomplish with China, and what the Chinese people hope to achieve for themselves.

Beijing's failure to respect the rights of its own citizens to criticize the government, to organize, to speak freely, and to gather and share information on sensitive subjects, impedes China's efforts to become a truly great power. China cannot long sustain robust economic growth in the information age while systematically stifling the Chinese people's ability to access information (e.g., the Great Firewall), to innovate, and to identify, condemn, and eliminate corrupt government practices. Chen's prolonged, illegal detention vividly illustrated the constraints under which the Chinese people are laboring. That is why it made sense for the U.S. government to invite China's most senior leaders to join with the United States in embracing Chen as a patriotic and loyal citizen of China.

Although that sounded far-fetched to some, Chen has been careful to blame his mistreatment on local officials in Shandong province, leaving room for China's leaders to appear blameless. Washington's goal in such cases should not be to humiliate China's leaders, but to encourage them to align themselves with the bravest advocates for human rights: the ones who reside in China, not along the Potomac.

Premier Wen Jiabao has repeatedly called for political reforms and rule of law. Faced with the alternative of a humiliating standoff with a national hero who took refuge under America's wing, Wen and President Hu Jintao apparently surprised most observers by demonstrating the commitment of China's most senior leaders to those stated objectives. China's leaders have saved face, while the U.S. government has remained true to its principles.

Was this ever a likely outcome? No. The chances of negotiating such a resolution were always remote. But diplomacy is the art of turning remote objectives into achievable ones.

I can't wait for the third act.

Update: The story out of Beijing got murkier Wednesday, as Chen Guangcheng gave interviews from Chaoyang Hospital suggesting a preference for asylum over remaining in China. After all he and his family have been through, these reports are perfectly understandable. Amnesty International USA emphasizes that China must honor its commitments to Chen and his family. Ultimately, Chen must be able to decide his own future, free from coercion.