BEIJING (Reuters) - Chen Guangcheng, a blind activist whose campaign for justice in China threatened to upend relations between the world’s two superpowers, does not believe in waiting for miracles.
For Chen, his extraordinary achievements over the past month - from his escape from house arrest in April to his dramatic arrival in the United States at the weekend - came from a lifetime of learning to defy the odds.
“For me to do things on my own, independently, has never been a very big problem,” the 40-year-old said in phone interviews this week as he awaited his government’s go-ahead to leave the country with his wife and two children.
“In my village, I was always active on my own, there was never anyone always with me. Since I was a child, growing up, it was always like this.”
Being accustomed to such autonomy enabled him, he says, to sneak pass guards, clamber over walls around his rural home in northeast China and evade detection alone for more than 20 hours before meeting up with supporters who helped drive him hundreds of kilometers (miles) to the Chinese capital where he spent three weeks in the U.S. embassy and at a Beijing hospital.
That escape embarrassed China’s government, which spends more on internal security forces than on its military, and sparked a diplomatic crisis with the United States - a crisis that only ended when Washington and Beijing bowed to his wishes.
In choosing to relocate to the United States, Chen was motivated not only by concerns for his and his family’s security in China, but also by his passion for the law. He plans to undertake his first formal course of study in the law at New York University, which has offered him a fellowship.
“It was self-study,” he said of his years of informal training in China.
“At the beginning my family would read me books about law - my older brother, my father, they all read me related books.”
He said he chose law as an elective subject in university, and learned how to study on his own, but he continued to rely on his family reading to him to further his knowledge.
“These are the ways I gained some knowledge of law, nothing more.”
Known to be fearless and combative with authority, he speaks in an easygoing, friendly voice and often chuckles shyly. But his experience on the receiving end of capriciously applied laws set him on his activist path, friends say.
“It was his own feelings of discrimination from the time he was a kid that really got him interested in law,” said Jerome Cohen, a China law expert and professor at New York University’s law school. Cohen has become a supporter and confidante of Chen.
“He felt the community leaders, instead of making blind people an object of sympathy, treated them as an unneeded burden on the community, people who didn’t pull their weight, people who claimed they shouldn’t pay tax like able-bodied farmers.
“That was what started him off.”
His activist work began by winning tax exemptions, according to law, for his family, and then for disabled citizens in his village of Dongshigu, near Linyi city, and nearby.
Chen later filed suit against a paper mill polluting a local river, and persuaded a British charitable trust to put up 25,000 pounds ($39,500) for the installation of wells in his village.
“Until then, everybody had to go a considerable distance to a river that didn’t have the greatest water and carry it back in the traditional on-your-shoulders (way),” Cohen recalled.
“That was hardship for everybody. When he got done installing the system, everybody had a little electronic well in the courtyard of their farmhouse.”
In the early 2000s, Chen was among a wave of “weiquan”, or rights defenders, who sought through court cases and publicity to blunt the ruling Communist Party’s abuse of power. For a few years, Chen and the movement notched up some successes, and a confident Chen said at the time that he wanted to show how villagers and disabled citizens could fight for their rights.
Chen’s early years and education were documented in the 2008 book “Out of Mao’s Shadow” by journalist Philip Pan.
He was blinded as an infant by a fever that was not properly treated by a feeble rural health-care system. The youngest of five brothers, he was unable to go to school until he was 17, and did not finish elementary school studies until he was 20.
Instead of studying massage, virtually the only vocation available to blind people at the time, he talked his parents into sending him to a school for the blind in Qingdao, a major coastal city. There he learned of laws protecting disabled people’s rights, and how they weren’t applied in his hometown.
He went to Beijing and won a tax reprieve for his family, which helped fund university studies in Nanjing where he studied traditional Chinese medicine, though he began studying law on the side at this time. Then, as now, he carried voice recorders around with him, replaying lectures and conversations.
From Chinese history, Chen said he admired 5th-century BC philosopher Mo Tzu, and Taoism founder Lao Tzu, the works of which had also been read aloud to him.
He says he is familiar with the “Si Da Ming Zhu” - the four classic novels of Chinese literature, all long and complex narratives. “I’ve read them all, very carefully,” Chen said. “I think they were great books.”
More recently, he said he had been studying books by Polish anti-communist dissident Adam Michnik, and about Napoleon.
Around 2003, Chen visited the United States on a State Department fellowship that targeted people of potential influence who had never visited America.
It was during that visit, in June 2003, that Chen and Cohen met, a fateful encounter that ultimately led to Chen’s departure on Saturday for New York. The two became friends.
“My first impression was I could be talking to a Chinese equivalent of Gandhi,” Cohen recalled. “This is a man with a quiet charisma, considerable intelligence, very articulate and a steely determination.”
Chen channeled that determination into helping individual families, no matter how small the case. Once, Cohen said, Chen helped a family whose mentally ill adult son, who needed constant supervision, was being taxed 90 yuan ($14) a year as an able-bodied man. In fact he was exempt, and Chen corrected the injustice by threatening a lawsuit.
“That was his life, trying to use the law as fast as he could learn it,” Cohen said.
In 2003, Chen won a major lawsuit against the Beijing subway system, allowing the disabled to ride the system for free.
Two years later, he drew attention with his now famous campaigns of exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in the name of China’s strict policy of population control.
The campaign initially appeared to pay off, after the government fired and detained officials from his Shandong province for forcing pregnant women to undergo abortions or sterilizing couples with more than two children.
The punishment did not amount to much, Chen said at the time. “It falls far short of the number of officials who should be punished,” he said in an interview then.
Indeed, he was the one who ended up being punished. In 2006 he was jailed for four years on vague charges of incitement and blocking traffic. After his release, he was put under stifling house arrest until his escape last month.
Stocky hired guns patrolled Dongshigu village, keeping watch night and day over Chen’s house and roughing up anyone who tried to visit him. Online videos show journalists and British actor Christian Bale being pushed, punched and having rocks thrown at their cars for attempting to visit.
With Chen and his wife and children now in the United States, his extended family back in his home village remain under siege, according to accounts from Chen and other lawyers. Reuters journalists attempted to visit Dongshigu village early this month but were chased away by guards.
“They turned against him because he’s a very determined person,” Cohen said of Chen. “He alienated the local officials by embarrassing them, exposing their illegal conduct.”
In 2007, Chen won what is considered the Asian equivalent of the Nobel peace prize from the Manila-based Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for his “irrepressible passion for justice in leading ordinary Chinese citizens to assert their legitimate rights under the law”.
Chen’s determination in the face of intimidation has turned him into a folk hero for many in China, despite censorship of web searches and microblog posts about him. His plight has sparked new life into China’s weiquan rights movement, with a band of lawyers now following his example and challenging what they see as the Communist Party’s stifling of lawful dissent.
Some Chinese, however, begrudge Chen’s decision to flee to the U.S. embassy and then to leave China, but the dissident says he will not stay forever in the United States.
Asked if he would return to China after his studies and continue his push for justice in his homeland, Chen said:
“Yes, that’s the plan.”
($1 = 0.6326 British pounds)
($1 = 6.3284 Chinese yuan)
Editing by Mark Bendeich