Chen Guangcheng is no stranger to adversity. Nor is he a stranger to the limelight. But with his dash for refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and his plea days later to come to the United States, the activist now finds himself at the center of an unfolding crisis between two world powers.
In a May 3 interview with Reuters from a Beijing hospital, the self-trained lawyer said he wanted to leave his home country "as soon as possible." With that, he signaled that the diplomatic drama between the United States and China over his fate is far from over.
"I feel very unsafe. My rights and safety cannot be assured here," he said. "I was thinking [about staying in China] before, but now I have changed my mind."
Chen, 40, grew up in China's eastern province of Shandong. A bout of illness as an infant left him blind. His brother, Guangfu, has told reporters that Chen was inspired by classical Chinese tales told by his father of heroes who overcame wicked officials to help ordinary people.
His work as a rights advocate has followed a similar path.
When Chen was a young man, blind people were not allowed to pursue advanced degrees in China. He accumulated legal knowledge by sitting in on law classes. He also had to overcome illiteracy, which lasted well into his 20s, before he could supplement his knowledge with private study. He began advising villagers and championing the rights of farmers and disabled people.
He became a hero to many in his province when, in 2005, he accused authorities of forcing up to 7,000 women to undergo late-term abortions or sterilizations under China's one-child policy.
"Time" magazine named him among the world's 100 most influential people in 2006. "Someone has to fight for people with no voice," the publication quoted him as saying. "I guess that person is me."
But Chen, like many Chinese rights advocates, would pay a high price for refusing to be silent. According to supporters and activists, he was abducted in Beijing and brought back to his home village, where he was put under house arrest. Routine intimidation and beatings of him and his family members followed. In 2006, he was sentenced to jail for more than four years. The charges were "disruption of traffic and damaging property."
While in jail in 2007, Chen was given the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize, awarded by the Philippines-based Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, which cited his "irrepressible passion for justice in leading ordinary Chinese citizens to assert their legitimate rights under the law."
After his release in September 2010, Chen and his wife and young child were again put under house arrest. He has claimed that since then, both he and he wife have suffered severe beatings, his daughter was prevented from attending school for a time, and a jamming device was installed in his home to prevent communication with the outside.
U.S. Drawn In
The story of Chen’s daring nighttime escape on April 22 and subsequent 500-kilometer trek to the U.S. Embassy has captured the world’s attention and overshadowed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit this week for strategic and economic talks in the Chinese capital.
To many observers, his case has become not only a symbol of China's troubling rights record, but a gauge of how much value Washington gives human rights considerations when critical bilateral relations hang in the balance.
Clinton’s comment a few years ago to reporters that human rights disagreements with China shouldn’t overshadow more important matters like Iran and North Korea’s nuclear program and U.S. trade relations is being resurrected in media coverage as Chen’s case plays out.
Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, told members of Congress at a hastily called May 3 committee hearing that U.S. officials must stay engaged in Chen’s case and watch for its effect on other Chinese activists.
"There is an enormous responsibility on the U.S. government, on activists, on other like-minded governments to watch incredibly closely -- not just over the next few days, but over weeks and months and years -- to monitor what happens to other activists who will suffer from further retribution by virtue of this incident in particular," she said. "We know that the machine has already swung into action."
The man at the center of the drama also appealed to lawmakers by calling a mobile phone that was held up to a microphone at the hearing.
Chen said he was concerned about the fate of his family members, who have reportedly been pressured or abused in recent days.
"I want to come to the U.S. to rest. I have not had a rest in 10 years," he said.
Bob Fu, an exiled Chinese religious-freedom advocate who runs ChinaAid and is a close friend of Chen, directed his plea at Clinton.
"Secretary Clinton: This is the moment, I think, to deliver -- at least to deliver what you have promised and what you have repeatedly said in the past two years, [that you] want to see Chen and his family with freedom and safety."
Written by Richard Solash in Washington with AFP, Reuters, "The New York Times," "Time," and "The Wall Street Journal"