Blind dissident Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) tilts his head backward and chuckles. Nine months after he escaped the purgatory of house arrest in China for the more sedate life of a New York University law student, he ruminates on the future of the authoritarian system he escaped and comes to a defiant conclusion: It’s doomed.
“It’s an inevitability of history, whether the party likes it or not,” Chen said. “Once the people are waking up, change is coming for sure.”
The 41-year-old legal activist was speaking ahead of his receipt of a human rights award in Washington on Tuesday last week about his homeland’s future and on adapting to life in the US, after enduring years of abuse at the hands of officials in his rural community in eastern China. Chen’s brave campaign for rights of the disabled and against forced abortions had long made him a cause celebre among rights activists, but his daring escape in April last year to the US embassy in Beijing triggered a diplomatic crisis and catapulted him into the international limelight. The upshot of frantic backroom negotiations was that China allowed him to come to the US to study law at New York University.
The public attention has ebbed somewhat, but his passion has not. Despite assurances from the Chinese government that the persecution he and his family faced at the hands of local officials in Shandong Province would be investigated and the results made public, Chen complains that so far nothing has happened.
“Not only that, but officials have actually been promoted. The persecution of my family members continues,” said Chen, speaking through an interpreter.
While Chen says persecution of his elder brother has eased, his nephew Chen Kegui (陳克貴) was sentenced in December to three years in prison, accused of attacking officials with a knife. Chen says it was a clear case of self-defense, as the officials had barged into the house at night and beat his nephew.
“If the party can’t respect basic common sense, how can you expect it to respect the law?” said Chen, adding that his nephew has been denied proper legal counsel and still has not seen his own family members. “The entire trial was conducted in a black box.”
The US says it had urged China not to exact further retribution against Chen’s family members, and Beijing has said it would abide by Chinese law. The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond for comment on the case.
Chen suffered bitterly for his long legal crusade that embarrassed and angered local officials. He served four years in prison only to be released into an abusive and illegal house arrest. He escaped by clambering over rugged 4m-high rock walls and tumbling into a neighbor’s pig sty. The dissident suffered three broken bones in his foot, but managed to reach Beijing, and after the negotiations, was spirited to New York.
Chen says he feels very good about life in the US. He lives in university-provided housing in lower Manhattan, with his wife, Yuan Weijing (袁偉靜), seven-year-old daughter, Kesi (陳克斯), and nine-year-old son, Kerui (陳克睿), who attend public schools. In China, the family had been forced to live apart.
“American people are very kind to me and very warm. They have a strong sense of justice,” Chen said.
He spends alternate days studying English language and law. His legal studies started with the US Declaration of Independence and have since covered the US Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act — the culmination of an unusual path to learning the law.
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.