A year ago, Chen Guangcheng was living under house arrest in the small Chinese village of Dongshigu, unable to travel or receive visitors and subject to constant harassment by the local authorities. Today, he is a global human rights icon, living with his family in New York's Greenwich Village and free to study and go where he pleases -- though uncertain about whether he will ever be allowed to return to his homeland.
Chen, a self-taught lawyer who has been blind since early childhood, first came to prominence in 2005, when he brought a class-action lawsuit alleging that local authorities had forced women in his region to undergo forced abortions and sterilizations as part of their adherence to China's one-child policy. He was imprisoned for four years for his temerity and then detained in his home, where he faced regular physical abuse. As his fame grew within China, futile attempts to break past the phalanx of guards near his house became a popular method of protest. He soon was adopted as an international cause célèbre, with everyone from U.S. Rep. Chris Smith to actor Christian Bale seeking to visit.
Chen shocked the world in April when he made a daring, next-to-impossible escape, climbing over the wall surrounding his house (breaking his foot in the process) and catching a ride some 350 miles to Beijing, where he took refuge in the U.S. Embassy. After a tense, days-long diplomatic standoff closely involving Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (No. 3), a deal was struck under which Chen would be allowed to travel to the United States to study. Now at New York University, Chen has embraced his new role as an evangelist for human rights, making the case that incremental change -- one village or even one person at a time -- can eventually transform a superpower. Against all odds, he remains optimistic, believing that China, taking a cue from Japan and South Korea, must "learn Eastern democracy." He even thinks it's inevitable: "Nobody can stop the progress of history," he says.
Best idea: The determination of China's common people. This is the hope of China's future. Worst idea: Violence. American decline or American renewal? This depends on whether the good nature of common people can be given expression in government policies, including foreign policy.