Photo: Chen Guangcheng and family (courtesy ChinaAid)
It's hard to imagine a more dramatic interruption to U.S.-China talks last week than the arrival of human rights activist Chen Guangcheng. Having cleverly escaped the guarded confines of his home and arrived on the doorstep of the U.S. Embassy, Chen wasn't as concerned about the potential for Chinese banks entering the U.S. as he was about exposing human rights abuses – and getting his family to safety.
Chen Guangcheng's remarkable escape from abusive house arrest made headlines throughout the world, while baffling the Chinese government. At the time of his escape, an estimated 100 guards surrounded Chen's home and village. Windows were boarded up. Walls surrounded the home. And, on top of all of this, Chen Guangcheng is blind. But his lack of sight didn't stop him from concocting an daring plan that possessed all the flair and intensity of an action movie.
It all started several months ago, when Chen began lulling his captors to laziness by laying in bed for hours and days at a time. “He did a darn good job,” said activist Bob Fu, who explained that the activist barely left his bed over a period of two months in preparation for his escape. “He didn't really move much, just laying in bed and making the impression that he couldn't move.” This might explain why the dozens of guards surrounding Chen's home couldn't be disturbed from their peaceful reverie until three days after Chen had escaped the home, scaled a wall, and fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing with the help of a network of activists.
Chen chose a moonless night for his great escape. Under cover of darkness, he slipped out of the house, scaled the first of several walls, and began his 19-hour journey to freedom. “I waited until the wind was blowing, or until the guards were listening to music on their mobile phones. Then I would start crawling again,” he told journalist Melinda Liu.
Chen later told supporters that he had fallen at least 200 times – and broken three bones in his foot. First running, then limping, then crawling, Chen made his escape a step at a time. With the help of a network of activists, he arranged a rendezvous with fellow advocate He Peirong, sometimes referred to as “Pearl,” who drove him 300 miles to Beijing in her truck.
Chen's great escape was precipitated by the horrific abuse he and his family endured under house arrest, at the hands of the officials who guarded their home. Any attempt at leaving the home resulted in Chen and his wife being brutally beaten. Initially imprisoned for his work as an activist, Chen's skirmishes with the Chinese government were frequent. He regularly took on cases that exposed human rights abuses against rural populations, fighting for access to clean water and tax-exemptions for the disabled.
None of his cases were popular with the Chinese government, but when Chen led a class-action lawsuit representing rural women who had experienced forced abortions at the hands of aggressive family planning officials, he was singled out for persecution by the government. Chen refused to be silent, carefully crafting his case. He documented the cruelty of the procedure, and the torture endured by women who had escaped forced late-term abortions.
For his courage in exposing injustice, Chen received a four-year prison sentence. He served every day of it. But after four years in prison, the Chinese government had no intention of granting Chen his freedom. He was escorted to his home, which he immediately found had been converted to a prison of its own. The windows were boarded up with metal sheets, and dozens of guards were stationed at various points around the home and the surrounding village. Chen was under maximum security house arrest.
If Chinese government officials had taken even a moment to get to know Chen Guangcheng, however, they might have realized that they were nowhere near silencing him.
Blinded by a fever as a young child, Chen's life changed overnight. But he determined that his lack of sight wouldn't hold him back. In a nation where only a tiny minority of blind people receive an education, Chen first trained as an acupuncturist and then a masseur, and eventually taught himself the intricacies of the Chinese legal system.
The blind human rights activist who arrived on the doorstep of the U.S. Embassy was familiar with hardship, and excelled under adversity. And he wouldn't take no for an answer. As diplomats worked frantically to come to an agreement on the situation, Chen watched and waited, confident that once again, he could persevere through this trial. His dramatic escape was only the beginning.
Details of Chen's dramatic escape from house arrest continue to emerge, and activists and family members associated with his case have come under interrogation and even been arrested. Chen himself has yet to leave China – he has accepted an offer to study in the United States, but remains in Beijing for the moment. He is confident that the situation will be resolved soon, but says he can't predict what barriers might still stand in his way. "I'm very thankful for the U.S. government for helping me in this period," he says. "I'm also very thankful to the [Chinese] central government for its calm and restraint during this episode."
Chen has faith that it won't be long before he finally gains the freedom he desires. He says that his escape was miraculous, and that he couldn't have encountered the dark night alone. “I believe God was helping me,” he recently told the South China Post.
Kristin Wright is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to human rights, international travel, social justice, women's issues, religious freedom and refugee resettlement. For further articles, visit her website at kristinwright.net. Kristin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publication date: May 11, 2012