Chen was blinded by fever in infancy and is largely self-taught. He describes his education as being back-to-front: learning from life and the society around him, before embarking on his formal education. Because of his disability, he only began elementary schooling at age 18.
He values the creativity that US education encourages and is highly critical of schooling in China, where he contends, “they provide the answers for you, and they ask you to memorize it. Over time that hampers your sense of judgment, and what’s right and wrong.”
Chen says he eventually wants to return to China, although that is not on his mind just yet. He stays in touch with his relatives back in the village, including his 79-year-old mother, whom he says is happier now that he has managed to leave the country.
“She was always heartbroken with us being beaten,” he said.
Like other Chinese rights activists who have left the country, it could be tough for Chen to get permission to return. He is a stinging critic of authoritarian rule and has now achieved world renown, perhaps only surpassed by jailed Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波).
On Tuesday last week, Chen was feted at a ceremony on Capitol Hill by the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, which was named for the late US representative Tom Lantos, who was a Holocaust survivor and prominent human rights advocate.
“The case of Chen Guangcheng and the degree of fear and paranoia that this massive regime has of this single brave man is an indication of how afraid they are, of the simple power of the truth he’s speaking. It absolutely terrifies them,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, the foundation’s president.
Access to the Internet and social media — albeit censored — has offered new avenues for people to express their views in China, but the Chinese Communist Party maintains a political monopoly. It has presided over an economic boom that has lifted hundreds of millions from poverty.
Chen maintains the economic gains are a smoke screen: that wealth is unevenly spread and the party is not as strong as it appears to outsiders. He says that the party relies on intimidation to maintain power and is losing its capability to deceive the people.
“I believe when the time comes and I go back, China will be changing,” he said.