Chen Guangcheng’s Journey

Over the years, the extraordinary journey of Chen Guangcheng has been an inspiration, a protest, and, at times, a dark farce. Now, through his own sheer will, his life has come to symbolize, for China and the United States, an opportunity.

Sometime in the last few days, Chen slipped out of the stone farmhouse on the rural plains of Shandong province where he has been held under house arrest, with his family, off and on since 2005. If Chen’s captors had been readers of history, they might have predicted that he would not acclimate to limitations. Born blind, to a peasant family, he once ventured four hundred miles to Beijing, when he was in his early twenties, to file a tax complaint. Later, he was steered into the study of massage and acupuncture—one of the few professions available to the blind in China—but he leveraged that opportunity into taking law courses, and became a pioneering attorney on behalf of women subjected to forced abortions and sterilizations under the one-child policy. Lastly, his captors might have done well to remember that the last time he escaped, in the summer of 2005, he slipped out of his house after nine o’clock, because the darkness gave him an advantage. This time he escaped at night once again, and made his way to Beijing with the help of accomplices. He is now believed to be under the protection of U.S. diplomats. (They have not confirmed.)

For years, Chen’s case has been a confusing blot on China’s aspirations for reform; every step that the country took toward greater rule of law or judicial accountability was cheapened by the fact that, ever since Chen’s legal challenges embarrassed his local government in 2005, central authorities in Beijing have been unwilling or unable to prevent local apparatchiks from systematically abusing him. His case became a kind of authoritarian tragicomedy in 2006, when Chen, who had once been celebrated in the local press for his determination to become a lawyer, was sentenced to four years and three months in jail for “destroying property” and “assembling a crowd for the purpose of disrupting traffic”—even though, at the time, he had been under house arrest. Even the nationalist corners of the Chinese press could no longer understand it. Last October, the _Global Times wrote that “the case of Chen Guangcheng has become exaggerated into a mirror of China’s human rights, and it seems that we need more experienced authorities to lance this boil.”

Since getting out of jail, Chen has spent nineteen months in undeclared house arrest, with no legal justification; he has been barred from contact with the outside, and has been frequently assaulted. Like many others, I tried to visit Chen’s house. It was 2005, and I got no further than the front yard before plainclothes police and their proxies moved in. They pushed me into a taxi, sent me away, and tailed the car to the county line. This week, however, Chen succeeded in doing what dozens of reporters and lawyers and activists—and at least one Hollywood star—have failed to do: He broadcast his voice to the world. “I implore the Chinese government to ensure the safety of my family according to the principles of upholding the rule of law,” he said in a videotaped appeal to China’s Prime Minister, recorded in hiding in Beijing, and now widely circulated. In his message (translated in full), he mixed the language of a lawyer—“As an affected party, I hereby accuse them of the following crimes”—with a medical and logistical accounting of his ordeal, including injuries sustained by his wife, Yuan Weijing, from guards’ beatings: a “left orbital bone,” “lumbar disc protrusion.” But perhaps the most striking passage is not about violence. It is about the arrangement of guards dedicated to keeping him alone and silent, an image that will linger in Chinese history as the physical expression of a regime that has become afraid of its own people:

They station one team inside the house and another one outside, guarding each of the four corners. Further out, they block each road leading to my house, and extend as far as the village entrance. They dedicate seven to eight people to guarding bridges in neighboring villages….[On the] roads leading to my village, they dedicate up to twenty-eight guards to them each day…My understanding is that the number of officials and policemen who participate in my persecution adds up to about one hundred.

In his escape and his appeal, Chen has posed several questions. He has asked Premier Wen Jiabao to protect his family and address the corruption at the root of his case. In doing so, Chen has given Wen perhaps his final chance, in the final months of a frustrated ten-year term, to fulfill his oft-stated intentions to reform the system. As of now, Wen will be remembered as a well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective advocate for political reform. If he can protect Chen’s family, and bring his abusers to justice, Wen will have an accomplishment worth noting. It will do nothing to undermine Chinese stability and economic growth—so often the excuses to defer systemic reform—to address the crimes visited upon Chen Guangcheng.

To the United States, he has presented a related question. What do a blind peasant lawyer and the privileged senior Party police boss Wang Lijun—who fled to the U.S. consulate in February—have in common? When their system failed them, each man, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, sought protection from the Americans. We should be proud of that.

Chen’s timing is, I suspect, no coincidence: Next week, Hillary Clinton, Timothy Geithner, and a raft of other officials arrive in Beijing for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Even American officials who sympathize with Chen will find this awkward. They need China for diplomatic support and persuasion on Iran, North Korea, Syria, and more—and the last thing they want is a fight over a dissident. Wanted or not, the moment to demand justice for Chen has arrived. Asked if the U.S. should protect him, Susan L. Shirk, a former State Department official, told the Times: “A blind lawyer who is being persecuted for exposing forced abortions? I don’t think there’s any question about it.” In other words, it’s not clear if Chen is in the embassy or elsewhere, but it’s difficult to imagine the administration not finding a solution to ensure that Chen stays safe. It will succeed, I’m sure, but while they’re at it, the visiting Americans should make clear that they are no less concerned about the fate of Chen’s relatives: his wife; a nephew, Chen Kegui; and activists, including He Peirong, who are said to have helped him escape.

It’s not clear how the American delegation will finesse this extraordinary moment, but a great many will be watching. So far, the only side to have declared its strategy is Chen himself. “If anything is to happen to my family,” he said in his video to the world, “there will be no end to my pursuit of this issue.”