Last updated: May 26, 2012 12:14 am

Chen Guangcheng: journey to freedom

How exactly did the legal activist – blind, and with a broken leg – escape house arrest?
Chen broadcasts a video petition. One of his key campaigns was against forced abortions©Reuters TV

Chen broadcasts a video petition. One of his key campaigns was against forced abortions

Dongshigu is a small village in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong. Nestled amid apple orchards, peanut fields and cornfields, the scattering of houses – built from the pale rocks strewn over the nearby hills – can appear almost idyllic on a nice day. But at the corner of the narrow country road that leads into the village, two men block the way. “What do you want?!” one barks through our car window, before brusquely waving us away. Similar-looking men – plainclothes policemen in their 40s, tall and orderly dressed – stand on several streets branching off the highway. They are guarding against the spirit of a man who has long since gone: Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist whose desperate dash for freedom has made global news, arrived in New York last weekend.

Chen Guangcheng arrives in New York, last weekend©Photoshot

Chen Guangcheng arrives in New York, last weekend

Chen Guangcheng’s daring escape from imprisonment in his farmhouse to the US embassy in Beijing – forcing the world’s two biggest powers to negotiate over his fate – is already the stuff of legend. In his home village, he became a heroic figure a long time ago.

“He held my hands once,” says one old lady who met Chen seven years ago. Resting from work in the fields near Dongshigu, she recalls visiting Chen in 2004 because he was supporting women against violent family-planning officials. “He helped my daughter and he listened to our story,” she says. “He can’t see, but he feels.” It is a fitting characterisation of a man who has broken out of the confines of his disability, narrow social convention and a repressive political system through his sensitivity, empathy and sheer willpower.

Chen was born the fifth son of a farmer, and was robbed of his eyesight by a fever before he was a year old. The boy all but ignored his handicap. “He was known in his village as a naughty boy who would always climb trees and walls even though he was blind,” says Bob Fu, the Chinese-born pastor who runs the US-based NGO ChinaAid.

Chen studied massage, one of the few courses open to the blind in China. He also attended law lectures on the side – it was his true passion, one which he soon found ample opportunity to indulge.

Compared with those in many parts of the Chinese countryside, Shandong farmers are well-off. However, progress has been superficial, because they are unable to defend their rights against corrupt and tyrannical officials. Chen Guangcheng tried to support them. In China, an ordinary citizen can help others file and argue cases in court as a legal representative, even if he or she is not a lawyer. As Chen helped villagers campaign against a polluting paper mill, against discrimination of the sick and disabled, and against violent family-planning officials, his fame spread. A blind man in rural China usually has a lonely life, but Chen became a magnet for the distressed. “He is somebody who gives other people confidence, trust, and who is quietly resourceful,” says Eva Pils, a law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

From left: Chen’s brother, Chen Guangfu, and long-time friend, law professor Jerome Cohen©Reuters/Eduardo Muñoz

From left: Chen’s brother, Chen Guangfu, and long-time friend, law professor Jerome Cohen

Chen Guangcheng enlisted all the help he could get. Chen Guangfu, his older brother, was his closest associate. “I really admire the brother,” says professor Jerome Cohen, a veteran Chinese law expert at New York University and long-time friend of Chen’s. “He would read law texts to Guangcheng, and sometimes appear in court [in his place].”

Initially, Chen’s activism earned him official praise, but that changed when he organised a mass lawsuit on behalf of local women over forced abortions and sterilisations – methods that violate China’s own population-control laws. “Chen’s work involved exposing crimes, including people dying. According to friends close to Chen at the time, there was blood on the hands of local officials,” says Pils. The court dismissed his case, and in 2006 Chen was sentenced to four years in prison.

A lucky escape

In late 2010, Chen returned home from prison to find the windows of his farmhouse boarded up with metal sheets, a concrete wall built around the yard, and guards surrounding the compound. He was now being imprisoned in his own home. The authorities had resolved to let him disappear, albeit under effective house arrest, but Chen refused to go quietly. He managed to accuse his jailers in videos posted online. As a result, he, his wife and his mother were severely beaten.

Last year, hundreds of internet users began organising visits to Dongshigu, but to no avail – the luckier ones were chased away by Chen’s jailers. Others were beaten up, robbed and abandoned in the fields. After a few months of this reign of terror, Chen began plotting his escape.

“It had become a village of imprisonment and torture. I could not achieve anything there any more,” he said, in one of several phone interviews with the FT this month.

Plainclothes policemen guard the entrance to Dongshigu, Chen’s home town, on April 30©Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Plainclothes policemen guard the entrance to Dongshigu, Chen’s home town, on April 30

In February, Chen began staying in bed for long periods of time, lulling the guards into believing that he was ill, in the hope that they would become less vigilant. Then, on April 19, the time had come. Using the climbing skills honed in childhood, Chen scaled the wall of his courtyard and jumped into his neighbour’s yard. He broke his foot on that very first jump. He sneaked into the neighbour’s pigsty and lay down until everything had quietened down outside, then continued climbing from one courtyard to the next to dodge patrolling guards. Once outside the village, he made his way northwest through the fields to a river bend, where the water was shallow enough to cross.

“But he got the direction wrong,” says Liu Weiguo, a lawyer in the provincial capital of Jinan who has helped many activists travel to Dongshigu. “At one point, he got dangerously close to a bluff. Falling down there would have been the end. He was really incredibly lucky.”

“Guangcheng was out there on his own for at least 17 hours,” says He Peirong, a teacher and activist who later drove Chen to Beijing.

In the early hours of April 20, Chen walked into Xishigu, a village across the river from Dongshigu. A villager took him to the home of a couple whom Chen had helped in the past. The mud- and blood-smeared figure appeared in their kitchen like a ghost. “Everyone knew about him because he’d helped so many people, but nobody had seen him since they put him away,” says a man from a nearby village. “He became an inspiring idea, but it was shocking to see him again, a man of flesh and blood.”

The friends notified Chen’s older brother Guangfu, who sent He Peirong an email, saying: “The bird is out of the cage – what now?” He Peirong and a few other supporters then drove the 400km from Beijing to Shandong to collect Chen, after his friends in Xishigu had dropped him off in a neighbouring district. “We did not set a fixed time and place, because we were worried that the police might be listening in,” says He Peirong. “In Shandong, we went to meet Chen Guangfu, who told us the next meeting point.”

Just after midnight on April 23, He Peirong’s party stopped in Xintai, a city 50km from Chen’s home, and fanned out to search for him. It took them almost two hours to find him in the dark. She is still moved when she talks about their long-awaited first meeting. “His hands are warm and very soft, and they trembled all the time,” she says.

Protesters in Hong Kong demand the release of the detained Chen supporter He Peirong©Kin Cheung

Protesters in Hong Kong demand the release of the detained Chen supporter He Peirong

The group’s drive back to Beijing was interrupted by a flat tyre. Once there, they transferred Chen from one flat to another. The idea of the US embassy came up only as they ran out of safe places. On the morning of April 25, one of them called the US embassy and asked the Americans to take him in. Harold Koh, the State Department’s legal adviser (who was called back just as he was boarding a cruise ship on the Yangtze River), advised that Chen be taken in for humanitarian reasons because of his blindness and his leg injury. By the end of the day, secretary of state Hillary Clinton had approved the plan. On the night of April 26, an embassy car set out to pick him up.

“The activists who were helping Chen were being followed and the embassy car going to meet them was also possibly being followed, but both cars lost the people following them and then they made the transfer,” says a state department official. One person involved in smuggling Chen in says it was “almost as if [the police or state security officers] were helping us to get Chen into the embassy”.

In Washington, Kurt Campbell, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, informed Zhang Yesui, the Chinese ambassador, that Chen had entered the embassy in Beijing. Meanwhile, back in Dongshigu, the guards had discovered he was missing. Around midnight, security forces broke into the home of his older brother and dragged him away. Chen Guangfu was interrogated and tortured for two days and nights. “They tied my hands, whipped them with a leather belt, and stomped on my feet,” he said.

After his detention, security officials stormed back into Chen’s home, swinging wooden clubs. Chen Kegui, Chen Guangfu’s 32-year-old son, fought them off with kitchen knives, injuring a senior local official. Nobody died, according to witnesses, but Chen Kegui has since been detained on charges of “intentional homicide”. Under Chinese law, this can apply when homicide is attempted but not achieved; however, lawyers who have looked at the case say this is a trumped-up charge, because Chen Kegui was acting in self-defence.

Later that day, April 27, eight days after he climbed out of his courtyard, Chen Guangcheng appeared in a 15-minute video posted online. The news of his escape exploded over the internet. As he had been doing for years, Chen appealed to the authorities to respect their own laws. Against the backdrop of a white lace curtain, dressed in a black sweater, Chen slowly described the illegal incarceration, the beatings, threats and humiliations he and his family had endured in their own home for more than a year. With his voice faltering and his upper lip trembling, Chen said: “Premier Wen [Jiabao], many people don’t know about all these illegal acts. I think you should give people a clear answer in the near future whether the violations of law and discipline are the acts of these local party officials or ordered by the central government. If we start an investigation and tell the truth to the people, the result is obvious. If you continue to ignore it, what will people think?”

Enter the diplomats

Chen’s question, which would be considered only fair in a western democracy, amounted to an immense challenge for China’s regime. But the precise timing also placed the government under huge pressure, and set the stage for the negotiations that followed about what to do with Chen.

Hillary Clinton’s team arrive for talks with their Chinese counterparts in Beijing, May 4©Jason Lee/AFP/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton’s team arrive for talks with their Chinese counterparts in Beijing, May 4

On Thursday, May 3, Clinton and treasury secretary Tim Geithner were expected in Beijing for the opening of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). The world’s two largest economies did not want Chen to disrupt the most important channel through which they discuss their relationship. So the diplomats got to work. At 10am on Sunday, April 29, they sat down in a foreign ministry meeting room, China’s vice-foreign minister Cui Tiankai behind one long table, facing Kurt Campbell behind another long table.

Campbell was joined by Gary Locke, the US ambassador in Beijing, and Harold Koh. Cui was flanked by Chinese diplomats and officials from the Ministry of State Security, the department which probably approved the persecution of Chen. Although the Chinese negotiators held quiet consultations among themselves, Cui was the only one to address the Americans. According to one person involved in the negotiations, Cui did not table any proposals, he only responded to American ideas. “It was an extremely sensitive situation for them, and they handled it with great skill,” says one US diplomat. He adds that the episode, often described as a diplomatic “spat”, has greatly increased his respect for his Chinese counterparts.

US ambassador Gary Locke (left) accompanies Chen en route to his reunion with his family in Beijing, May 2©AP Photo/US Embassy Beijing

US ambassador Gary Locke (left) accompanies Chen en route to his reunion with his family in Beijing, May 2

One proposal, that a Chinese interlocutor talk to Chen directly, was dismissed straightaway, as Chinese officials refused to enter the embassy and the Americans were not comfortable with bringing Chen out. Under another plan, American doctors and nurses from a western-owned private hospital in Beijing would have secretly picked up Chen from the embassy and his family from his home town, and transferred them to Shanghai that very Sunday. This, too, was abandoned. For, within 24 hours of the start of the talks, the Americans asked: would Chen be allowed to leave Shandong, where he had been persecuted for seven years, and study law elsewhere in China? Beijing agreed, proposing a choice of seven universities.

US diplomats say their Chinese counterparts received instant approval from above, at different stages of the talks, allowing them to move ahead at a rapid pace. But no deal could be made without Chen himself. “I spent two to three – sometimes five – hours a day talking with him, trying to determine what he wanted,” Locke said later. “He made it very, very clear from the very beginning that he wanted to stay in China, that he wanted to be part of the struggle to improve human rights in China.”

Chen’s priority was to not go back to his village. “He talked about his dream of studying law and wanted a safe future for his family,” said Locke. But when presented with the first proposal on Monday – that he relocate within China – Chen said no. That night, professor Cohen was called in. “I spoke with him for two hours, and there was this gushing up of fear,” Cohen recalls. On Tuesday, May 1 Chen still refused to make a deal. Instead, he asked why the Chinese government couldn’t give some assurances, and bring his wife and family to Beijing. The US team went back to negotiate, and the Chinese side consented. “That night, I had another two-hour conversation with him, and he was more positive,” says Cohen. “We discussed this very innovative opportunity. He was aware of the difficult choices.”

Cohen says it was made clear to Chen that if he stayed in the embassy, the safety of his family could not be guaranteed, and he would be held largely incommunicado. It was an exhausting exercise for everyone involved. Chen “is a very intense man”, says Cohen. The US diplomats were impressed by Chen in much the same way his village neighbours were. “When you speak with him you hold his hand – [he held] my hand in one hand and Harold’s in another,” says Campbell.

The next morning, Yuan Weijing, Chen’s wife, arrived in Beijing. After two long phone conversations with his wife, Chen decided to leave the embassy. The deal included a commitment from the Chinese government to pay for Chen’s education, and living expenses for his family. Beijing also agreed to conduct an investigation into his mistreatment and guaranteed him the full rights of any other student. “I was holding his hand and you could tell he was really giving it a lot of thought,” said Locke. “And we just waited for minutes. Just sat there in silence and waited for minutes. And then suddenly he jumped up and said, ‘Let’s go.’”

As Chen arrived at Chaoyang Hospital in downtown Beijing to be reunited with his wife and two children, Hillary Clinton praised the arrangement as a solution that reflected “[Chen’s] choices and our values”. Only Beijing failed to confirm any deal had been struck. A foreign ministry spokesman merely blasted the US for interfering in its internal affairs, and demanded an apology.

While doctors examined Chen and put his broken leg in a cast, reporters, activists and lawyers were blocked from visiting him. Within hours, Chinese rights activists were posting probing questions on Twitter, warning that Chen might have been abandoned by the US. Teng Biao, a prominent rights lawyer and friend, urged Chen to change his mind and leave the country.

That night, Chen learnt that after his escape, police had tied his wife to a chair and threatened to beat her to death. He told friends and journalists on the phone that he now felt under threat.“The S&ED provided an artificial timeline that pressured the US into cutting a quick deal when they didn’t have everything locked down,” said a person briefed by people in the room.

On Thursday, May 3, Chen declared that he now hoped to travel to the US to study law at New York University and “rest a few months”. He also phoned in to a Congressional hearing in Washington, to describe his persecution and appeal to the US government for help. The abrupt turn of events forced Clinton to broach the subject, suggesting to Dai Bingguo, the Communist party’s chief foreign policy official (with whom she had several meetings on Friday, May 4), that Chen should go to the US after all. Although the remark prompted an angry outburst from vice-minister Cui, the two teams hammered out a new deal in a matter of hours. In the afternoon, China’s foreign ministry spokesman said that Chen Guangcheng could apply to study abroad through normal channels, just like any other Chinese citizen. Beijing took another week to get the family’s documents ready – days that triggered hefty mood swings for Chen, who was worrying over the delay and complaining about his isolation in the hospital.

At a safe distance

As he is settling down in New York with his wife and two children, Chen’s odyssey has come to an end, for now. “I have made the right decision,” he said in a phone interview with the FT last week. “After I walked out of the embassy, the US-China agreement took effect, under which the central government guaranteed me my constitutional rights, freedom and safety. And these rights include the freedom to leave the country.”

However, that freedom comes with a heavy heart. Chen’s departure has already split Chinese activists, with some fearing that this iconic figure will lose any relevance once he is in America. “His charisma lay in the fact that he stood by the ones at the bottom of Chinese society, the helpless ones,” says one of those who helped in his escape. “Now that he has got himself out of here, that’s gone.”

Some of those whom Chen has left behind are taking up the baton. In the early hours of Wednesday, his older brother Chen Guangfu sneaked out of the village through the fields, avoiding the guards, and got on a bus to Beijing to consult with lawyers on the case of his son Chen Kegui. In a cynical echo of Chen Guangcheng’s own treatment six years ago, the government is refusing the young man, who stands accused of homicide, access to his lawyers.

On Thursday, Chen Guangfu had his picture taken by a friend in a Beijing street, in his hands a sign saying “Chen Kegui is innocent”.

But the Chinese government is unlikely to right the wrongs that led to Chen’s mistreatment in the first place. This week, the nationalist tabloid Global Times, which is owned by the Communist party, called Chen’s escape a “colourful bubble” and claimed that “nothing is left when it bursts”. Although Beijing insists otherwise, China is not ruled by law but by the Communist party, which tends to enforce the law against its own only when its own interests are at stake.

Some observers suggest that reformers in the Chinese leadership could seize on Chen’s escape to blame the powerful security apparatus and deal a blow to other conservatives within the Communist party. It will take months to determine whether or not that is happening. For now, the presence of the men guarding the road to Dongshigu suggests that little has changed since Chen Guangcheng made his first escape.

Kathrin Hille is deputy Beijing bureau chief and Jamil Anderlini is Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times. Additional reporting by Zhao Tianqi

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE