By now, the story of blind Chinese rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng's remarkable escape is almost the stuff of legend. On the moonless night of April 22, he evaded the security forces guarding his small Shandong farm house, maneuvering sightlessly over several farm walls, past irrigation ditches and through a few streams. After hiding out for several days in Beijing, Chen finally reached safety in the U.S. embassy.
Chen's amazing escape and sojourn in the U.S. embassy became an international incident, one that, at least for now, seems like it will have a happy ending: Chinese officials have agreed to allow Chen to go the United States under the face-saving pretense of furthering his legal studies. If all goes well, the Chen family could be on a plane to America in the next few days. Chinese legal expert Jerome Cohen, who advised Chen during this incident, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this month entitled "Chen's silent partner: Luck," arguing that "the role that luck played in Chen's saga is among the things that stand out."
Unfortunately, other dissidents in China have not been so fortunate. Consider Ni Yulan, a 52 year-old lawyer from Beijing, who since 2002 has advocated for Beijing residents whose homes were to be illegally demolished to make way for the city's expansion. Like Chen, Ni is a disabled legal activist who advocated for society's downtrodden, and who suffered at the hands of security forces. But unlike Chen, blinded as an infant due to an untreated fever, Ni's disability was more recent -- and more than just bad luck. In the 2010 Chinese documentary "Emergency Shelter" about her, Ni describes how the police broke her feet and kneecaps over two days in 2002."I could hear my bones cracking," she says matter-of-factly. "I lost all feeling. That was the end of them."
Still, Ni continued her activism, defending Falun Gong practitioners and displaced residents. Before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Ni was arrested again and returned to prison for two years on charges of interfering with public administration and of attacking a policeman; she had challenged the demolition of her own house where her husband had been born, a courtyard home in the western district of Beijing.
Ni, of course, is completely paralyzed from the waist down, and can't move her legs. Taken to a police station after trying to defend her home, a policeman accused her of kicking him in the groin.
I last saw Ni in January 2011, nine months after she was released for prison, in a cramped hotel room in the Western district of Beijing. Police had put pressure on landlords and hotels to deny them accommodations, so Ni and her husband Dong Jiqin decided to live in a tent in a park. But when that drew too much attention, the police moved them to this hotel, where Ni continued her activism. It was a stalemate that could not last: A few weeks prior, police had shut off the water and electricity to their room.
On February 10, 2011, former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman visited the couple in their hotel room. A few days later, a senior Canadian embassy official also visited Ni. I wondered at the time if the attention by the two countries would have any impact. Two months later, some 40 police stormed into the hotel room in the early morning hours and dragged the couple away.
"It's been almost nine years," Ni said to me that January afternoon, eternally hopeful. "I can withstand anything because so many people support me. I feel I've chosen the right path."