The escape of blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng from an oppressive house arrest in his village to apparent safety under the protection of U.S. diplomats in Beijing is a significant victory for human-rights activists, but it is one fraught with danger. The state security apparatus and local officials in Chen’s home of Shandong province are expected to react harshly to Chen’s flight and punish friends and family who may have helped him. “Although I am free, I am dogged by fear,” Chen said in a video appeal to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. “My family, my mother, my wife and my child are still in their evil clutches. They have long persecuted us. Because I have escaped, they may carry out crazed retaliation.”
Chen’s case poses risks for the U.S., which by becoming so direct an actor in what China’s central government likely considers a domestic affair may harm relations between the two nations. The U.S. State Department has declined to comment on the case, but Chen’s friends say he is under the protection of the U.S. embassy in Beijing. The case could overshadow the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue between China and the U.S., to be held in Beijing May 3–4, which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are scheduled to attend. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell was photographed by the Associated Press arriving at a Beijing hotel early Sunday on an unannounced trip, indicating he may have rushed to the Chinese capital for talks on Chen’s case ahead of this week’s high-level meetings.
When Clinton first came to China as Secretary of State two years ago, she said the U.S. didn’t want to allow human-rights concerns to interfere with Sino-American cooperation on issues like the economy and climate change. Over the weekend, a White House official sounded a similar tone in the first U.S. comments on the case. “China-U.S. relations is very important, so we are going to make sure that we do this the appropriate way and that the appropriate balance is struck,” John Brennan, U.S. President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, told Fox News on Sunday.
Unlike Wang Lijun, the Chinese police chief who appeared at a U.S. consulate in February, touching off a scandal that toppled a high-profile official, Chen is an unblemished figure. Wang carried out a crackdown in the city of Chongqing that many say trampled basic legal safeguards; he left the U.S. consulate in Chengdu after a one-day stay and was taken away by state security officers. Chen, however, is known for attempting to force local authorities to uphold the law. Blinded at a young age due to a fever, Chen angered officials in Linyi, Shandong province, when he began helping women who had been forced to undergo abortions due to a draconian enforcement of China’s one-child policy.
The Obama Administration will face tough criticism at home if it is seen as sacrificing Chen for the sake of smooth relations with Beijing. Already, Mitt Romney, Obama’s presumptive Republican challenger this fall, has raised Chen’s case, calling for the U.S. to protect the activist and his family. “Any serious U.S. policy toward China must confront the facts of the Chinese government’s denial of political liberties, its one-child policy and other violations of human rights,” the former Massachusetts governor said in a statement on his website. “Our country must play a strong role in urging reform in China and supporting those fighting for the freedoms we enjoy.”
Chen’s case mirrors that of Fang Lizhi, the Chinese physicist and dissident who was sheltered with his wife in the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Beijing for a year after the Tiananmen protests of 1989 were crushed by the Chinese military. Fang, who died in Arizona on April 6, was eventually allowed to leave for the U.S.
But there are also differences between the two men’s cases. Fang criticized China’s political system, calling Marxism “a worn dress that must be put aside.” He was labeled a “black hand” after the Tiananmen crackdown, making him a top-level enemy of the central government. Chen, who spent four years in prison on a questionable conviction of “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic,” has focused his energies on local injustices. In his video appeal, which was recorded after his escape, Chen recounts brutal beatings that he and his wife Yuan Weijing have suffered at the hands of their captors and the harassment of their 6-year-old daughter, who is allowed outside only to attend school, and even then is regularly searched and followed by plainclothes enforcers hired by local authorities. He doesn’t call for dramatic political change, but rather asks Premier Wen to protect his family and investigate wrongdoing in his village. Another difference: Chen’s supporters say he wants to stay in China.
Chen’s escape is likely to cause deep embarrassment to officials in Linyi and the village of Dongshigu who tormented the blind activist for years but ultimately couldn’t stop him. In his video appeal, Chen says the costs for monitoring him ran into the millions of dollars, and he names individuals who have assaulted him, his wife and the people who came to help them, including actor Christian Bale, who tried to visit with a CNN crew last year. After an attempt to dig an escape tunnel was thwarted, Chen prepared for his ultimately successful attempt by feigning illness and spending long periods in bed to lower the vigilance of his guards, says Bob Fu, head of ChinaAid, a U.S.-based organization that supports Chinese Christians. On April 22, Chen scrambled over the wall built around his family home and traveled across the countryside at night, when his blindness wasn’t such a disadvantage. He fell as many as 200 times and injured his leg crossing a river, says Fu. When He Peirong, an English teacher from the city of Nanjing, picked him up to drive him to Beijing, Chen “was covered with mud and blood and water,” says Fu. “He was a very wounded man, except in spirit.”
His escape has buoyed Chinese dissidents who have been under extreme pressure since Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 and calls for a Tunisian-style Jasmine Revolution touched off widespread arrests a year later. “This is a great thing, not only for Chen Guangcheng and his family but also for the image of Linyi and China,” says human-rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang. “Because Chen was a local target for ‘maintaining stability,’ and so he was a great financial burden for the local authorities. And he creates a bad image for the Chinese government. So his leaving marks a good start, and it creates an opportunity for the government to accept the reality and resolve the problem.”
During his flight last week, Chen was able to meet with activist couple Hu Jia and Zeng Jinyan at a secret location in Beijing. “We are very excited and encouraged by his escape,” says Zeng. “All of China’s civil society is encouraged.” Zeng posted photos of that meeting on her Twitter account, including one that shows Chen and Hu, old friends who have both served long prison terms for acts of defiance against the Chinese state, smiling together. The images appeared to have been taken in the same room where Chen filmed his 15-minute video appeal.
Over the weekend, police in Beijing detained Hu and held him for 24 hours while questioning him about Chen’s escape, allowing him only three hours of respite, says Zeng. During their meeting, Chen repeated his fears for his family. “He is very worried about his wife, his daughter and other family members,” Zeng says. Friends of Chen say they have been unable to contact his immediate family since word of his April 22 escape emerged five days later. He Peirong was detained on April 27 and has not been heard from since. Likewise, Chen’s brother Chen Guangfu and nephew Chen Kegui, who used a knife to slash at security guards who raided his house after they discovered his uncle’s escape, are believed to have been detained.
Despite the crackdown that is expected to follow Chen’s escape, Zeng says his safety makes the risks worthwhile. “The pressure is always there,” she says. “For me, it’s normal. Yes, it’s difficult to live, difficult to raise a child. I don’t care. I still feel very happy Chen Guangcheng has escaped. All of China’s civil society is encouraged by his escape.”
— with reporting by Jessie Jiang / Beijing