Citizen Chen

How a Chinese legal activist became an icon of freedom.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

Click here to see the images that are turning Chen into an icon. 

After six days of negotiations between the United States and China, blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Wednesday afternoon. Details remain sparse, but the deal is already proving controversial. Chen apparently told reporters that he believed his wife would be beaten to death if he stayed in the embassy. Zeng Jinyan, the wife of prominent dissident Hu Jia, told Foreign Policy, "I can confirm without doubt that I spoke to both Chen and Yuan [Chen’s wife]. Yuan told me she was frightened. Chen said he did not want to leave the embassy and did so because officials threatened to send his family back [to his hometown, where he was under de facto house arrest] if he refused." Wang Xuezhen, a Shandong-based activist who has campaigned for Chen’s release, told FP, "It’s now clear from several friends that Chen feels threatened." In an interview with CNN, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who helped negotiate the case, insisted Chen left the embassy of his own free will.

But by being unable to guarantee protection for Chen or his family, the State Department has shown the limits of the United States’ human rights engagement with a man who, to the small group of dissidents, activists, and intellectuals who represent China’s best hope for a democratic future, is an icon of freedom.

Chen is a hero to China’s growing community of liberal activists. FP spoke with a number of Chen supporters, whose views have often been lost amid the flurry of reporting over the diplomatic efforts to free the blind activist. "He’s a very pure moral voice" in a land where moral power is "weak," said a Beijing-based columnist and author.

"In one of my drawings, he’s the tank man, standing in front of the tank. In another, he’s seemingly distraught and helpless, just like the people who tried to help him," said a cartoonist, the creator of a popular series of sketches about Chen and modern Chinese life, who asked to remain anonymous.

Upon learning the news of Chen’s fears for his safety after leaving the embassy, one activist said only, "I’m so sad about this."

Born in 1971, Chen, who lost his sight in infancy from a fever, studied acupuncture and massage, a common career for the blind in China. His first legal success came when he petitioned for and received a tax refund that his parents shouldn’t have had to pay because of his disability. In 2005, armed with allegations that officials in the city of Linyi engaged in compulsory sterilization and forced abortions, Chen took his case to the country’s capital.

From the beginning, fear of Chen characterized the government’s response. The Communist Party had "always wanted to separate the farming class from the intellectuals," said Chan Koonchung, a former magazine publisher and author of The Fat Years, a dystopian look at China’s future. "Now the farming class had its own intellectual." Local officials, presumably afraid of the negative attention, detained Chen and held him under house arrest. He managed to escape, consulting the I Ching, an ancient Chinese book of divination, to determine when would be the most auspicious time to flee. "We don’t know much about his inner world," said the Beijing-based columnist. "His story is a lot like a fairy tale, full of symbolic power."

Local officials found him in the capital, beat him, and dragged him back to Linyi; later a court in Beijing sentenced him to four years and three months in prison for the crime of "damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic." International recognition for Chen came with the media attention in 2005; Time magazine named him one of its 100 most influential people in 2006; major human rights awards followed. Released from prison in 2010, he was placed under house arrest in his home village of Dongshigu and guarded by dozens of plainclothes enforcers, who prohibited outsiders from entering the village.

The tale of an innocent blind man suffering injustice spread. "When I heard about this, I felt the same way that everyone in China with a conscience felt," said a Beijing-based poet who asked for anonymity. "I felt powerless, disappointed, and angry."

Brave Chinese attempted to visit him and were violently repulsed by security forces guarding his house. Batman actor Christian Bale tried to see Chen in December, telling the CNN film crew that accompanied him that he wanted to meet him to "shake his hand and say what an inspiration he is." At times cruelty descended into farce: Five disabled people reportedly attempted to visit Chen; the thugs guarding the village attacked them. Chen and his family were regularly beaten. Chan postulated that local officials had convinced some high-ranking officials in Beijing that he represented the dangerous union of urban intellectuals and peasant champions.

Chen became a rallying point for the activist community. Artist and provocateur Ai Weiwei selected Chen for Wired‘s 2012 list of "50 People Who Will Change the World." Prominent human rights lawyers adopted a drawing of Chen behind bars as their Twitter avatars. The cartoonist, who goes by the pseudonym "Crazy Crab," organized an online campaign, collecting hundreds of portraits of men, women, and children wearing dark glasses; many held signs asking for Chen’s freedom.

"When I first heard about him, I thought he was just a ‘sacrificial object’ of human rights campaigns," the cartoonist said by email. "But the more I learned about him, the more I respect him." With Chen’s uncertain release, the cartoonist expressed dismay that China had played such an "ugly role" in the incident by refusing to apologize or admit wrongdoing about Chen’s case. The small community of Chinese intellectuals, dissidents, and NGO workers faces the problem that the general public "just doesn’t care" about Chen, the Beijing-based columnist lamented, comparing their isolation to that of dissidents in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Others familiar with Chen’s case do not support him, seeing him as a pawn in America’s interference in China. Hu Xijin, editor in chief of jingoistic tabloid Global Times, commented on Weibo, China’s popular microblogging service, that "the flexibility of the Chinese government" will determine Chen’s fate and that U.S. support and protection is "useless." State media almost never mention Chen, and his name remains censored on Weibo; presumably to get around censors, Hu wrote Chen’s name as ChenCG.

Chen is also blocked on Youku, China’s biggest video-sharing site. A recent search showed only seven results for Chen, five of the videos showing the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s response to the Chen case, and two posted five months ago featuring Sima Nan, an outspoken television commentator viewed by liberals in China the same way their American counterparts view Rush Limbaugh. Sima bitterly complained in the video that the Chen case shows the United States "bullying China" and characterized the Chen case as "the United States opening fire in the war of perception with China," a battle still being played out in Beijing.

Michael Anti, a Beijing-based activist and former Nieman fellow at Harvard University, said that "a blind person can escape from 100 people detention and make it to the embassy in Beijing for freedom — it’s very iconic." But with his fate uncertain, Chen the flesh-and-blood activist may still be in danger.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola