The amazing struggles of Chen Guangcheng

A truly remarkable story that reads like a thriller but reveals a dark side of Chinese repression that we should never forget. The New York Times reports:

Injuries suffered in the course of a daring nighttime escape. A covert appeal from underground activists to top State Department officials for humanitarian protection. A car chase through the streets of Beijing to spirit a dissident to safety inside the fortified American Embassy.

Those are among the new details that emerged Wednesday from the 10-day saga of… Chen Guangcheng, the blind rights lawyer who escaped house arrest in rural Shandong Province, and then, after managing to reach Beijing and come under American protection, was the subject of a series of highly unusual secret negotiations with the Chinese government. … 

The story involved intrigue, heroics and ultimately what some of the people involved called a betrayal. And it is a tale, related by activists, friends of Mr. Chen’s and embassy officials, that so far does not have a clear ending, with Mr. Chen expressing new fears about his safety if he remains in… China.

But regardless of the ultimate outcome, the tale of what happened to Mr. Chen and how he was handled by the Americans is likely to be remembered for years to come as one of the most dramatic episodes in the long, torturous history of relations between the United States and China.

… “Chen’s triumphant escape from his barbaric confinement is inspiring to all of us,” said Li Fangping, a lawyer who represented Mr. Chen during the trial in 2006 that led to more than four years of imprisonment on what he said were legally dubious charges. “Whatever the eventual outcome, it can only have a positive influence on China’s human rights situation.”

The seeds of Mr. Chen’s remarkable flight were planted months ago, friends and supporters said, when he and his wife began plotting his escape from the farmhouse where they had been confined since his release from jail in September 2010.

Although there were no legal charges pending against the couple, local officials had decided to turn their home into a makeshift prison with high walls, well-paid guards and sheets of metal to cover their windows.…  The local government’s goal was twofold: to prevent Mr. Chen from engaging in his legal work against coercive family-planning policies and to keep the couple cut off from the outside world.

When the Chens broke the rules — by trying to sneak out messages or secretly detailing their mistreatment in a homemade video — they were viciously beaten.

As part of the plan, Mr. Chen feigned sickness for weeks, tricking his minders into thinking he was bedridden. Then, on a moonless night on April 22, he began his mad dash from Dongshigu village, heaving himself over the first of several walls while the guards slept. It was during the first few minutes of his scramble that Mr. Chen severely injured his foot. In all, he told friends he fell 200 times as he made his made his way to a predetermined pickup point.

Once there, he slid a battery into the cellphone he had in his pocket and called He Peirong, a former English teacher from the distant city of Nanjing. Ms. He was part of a loose network of freelance rights advocates who had been trying to draw attention to his plight for more than a year. She had tried in previous months to visit Mr. Chen and his wife several times. Each attempt was repelled by the guards at Dongshigu’s entry points. Sometimes they beat her, and on one occasion the men robbed her of her money and cellphone and then dumped her in a faraway field.

Civil disobedience, she had told friends, was having little impact.

With Mr. Chen in her car, a decision had to be made: try to surreptitiously leave the country through the help of Christian activists, or stay in an attempt to establish an independent life within China. “Chen made it clear that he had no interest in becoming an exile,” said Bob Fu, an exiled Chinese dissident whose organization, ChinaAid, has helped others make the overland escape. “He wanted to stay in China and try to make things better.”

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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