From Darkness to Freedom

The escape of dissident Chen Guangcheng is the biggest diplomatic disaster for China in decades.

Chinese civil-rights activist Chen Guangcheng has long been a thorn in the side of the communist government. Despite being blind since birth, the self-taught lawyer has been relentless in exposing the injustices of the government’s population control policies. Now he’s made the regime squirm yet again, fleeing the house arrest intended to silence him and in the process triggering what may yet become the biggest diplomatic disaster for China since the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Last week, Chen slipped away from his heavily guarded farmhouse in rural Shandong province, where he has been a prisoner for nearly two years. He made his break at night, taking advantage of the darkness with which he lives permanently. Although his current whereabouts are unknown, he is reportedly under the protection of U.S. diplomats in the capital of Beijing, some 350 miles away.

That a blind man was able to dodge his heavily guarded confinement was discomfiting enough for the government. But the timing of Chen’s escape is also a major black eye for China. It comes just days ahead of a major economic summit in China this week. Where attention was supposed to focus on China’s economic growth, Chen’s escape has trained it instead on its continued suppression of human rights.

It is only the latest embarrassment Chen has inflicted on the government. What made him the target of domestic persecution and international acclaim was his work exposing the Chinese government’s brutal population control methods under its notorious “One-Child” policy. Chinese leaders have denied that such a policy even exists, but Chen, a dogged and meticulous lawyer, collected overwhelming evidence showing not only that the policy exists but the government has employed horrific measures like forced late-term abortions and compulsory sterilization to enforce it. It was a shocking confirmation that, for all its vaunted economic success in recent years, China remains a deeply repressive and backward country.

Government retaliation was quick to follow. In 2006, Chen was “disappeared” for three months in an undisclosed detention center, only to be released just in time to face a trial on charges of “damaging property and organizing a mob to disrupt traffic” – this despite the fact that he had been detained when the crimes supposedly took place. After just two hours of jury deliberation, Chen was handed a four-year prison sentence. When he later attempted to challenge the verdict at a subsequent retrial, key witnesses for his defense disappeared, one at a time, yet the court upheld the verdict anyway.
 After being released from prison in September 2010, Chen and his family were sentenced without charge to house arrest.

Today, Chen is effectively a prisoner in his own home. Guarded by a battery of police and security thugs, he and his family are subjected to regular beatings and forbidden to leave their home, even to seek medical treatment. No visitors are permitted to meet with him, as "Batman" star Christian Bale discovered when he was forcibly turned away from Chen's home.

It speaks to Chen’s indomitable will that none of this has stopped him. Despite the devastating conditions of his house arrest, he has remained an outspoken critic of the communist government and its human rights abuses. Already, he has used his brief time in freedom to reveal the full brutality with which he lives daily, releasing a video address to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao.

It is a harrowing catalog of abuse. In the video, Chen describes how half a dozen men broke into his house, pinned down his wife and “wrapped her in a blanket, beating and kicking her for hours.” He recounts how Zhang Jian, the deputy Communist Party secretary in charge of law enforcement in his Shuanghou township, told him explicitly that he would not enforce the law and even led mobs to Chen’s house to attack and rob him. He estimates that the government uses nearly 100 policemen and seven layers of security to keep him under constant watch. But what is most moving about Chen’s video appeal is the modesty of his requests. “I implore the Chinese government to ensure the safety of my family according to the principles of upholding the rule of law,” he says in the video.

Even this is asking too much of the government, however. Angered by Chen’s escape, the government is now cracking down on his family and fellow dissidents. His wife, his elderly mother, and his six-year-old daughter have reportedly been rounded up in retribution for his escape. Chen’s nephew is on the run after scuffling with security officials who invaded his home. A crackdown is also underway on Chen’s supporters. Blogger and activist He Peirong, who apparently drove the getaway car in which Chen fled to Beijing, is one of several supporters who has been rounded up and placed under arrest. There are rumors that she has been beaten in custody and growing concerns about her safety. The government for its part has tried to censor any discussion of Chen’s case, banning Web searches for keywords like Chen’s name and even the words “blind person.”

Still unsettled is how the Obama administration will respond to the situation. Providing Chen with protection, even if unofficially, is a welcome first step, but it’s not clear where the administration will go from here. John Brennan, the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism advisor, has sent mixed messages. The administration, he said, intends to “balance our commitment to human rights” with its intention to “continue to carry out our relationships with key countries overseas.” Where that leaves Chen, who wants to remain in China, is uncertain. What is certain is that abandoning him to the whims of the Chinese government would leave an abiding stain on the administration’s foreign policy.

Whatever happens to Chen, he has already been an inspiration. Never yielding to his physical limitations, he has time and again forced the communist regime to answer questions about the treatment of its citizens that it would prefer to suppress. It's no wonder that China's political dissidents have spent recent days celebrating his escape. As one of them put it, “There are many people now drinking toasts to him for the way he broke through his captivity, his difficulties, and pursued freedom. If a blind person can break out of the darkness to freedom, then everyone can."

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