When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Beijing in May 2012 for a top-level conference with Chinese officials on strategic and economic issues, she got much more than she bargained for. A handicapped Chinese human rights activist, Chen Guangcheng, had managed to obtain provisional asylum in the American embassy. Chen, who has been blind since infancy, was well-known to diplomats, journalists, and observers of human rights in China. In a society not sympathetic to people with disabilities, Chen had to fight for the right to obtain a primary school education and then acquire qualifications as a lawyer using the Chinese version of Braille. He came to prominence in the early part of the last decade for trying to draw attention to—and correct—the brutal and egregious persecution of Chinese families who had transgressed the one-child policy.
Only 41 years old at the time of his arrival at the embassy, Chen had already conducted many interviews with foreign journalists based in China, and Newsweek had run a cover story on him. Secretary Clinton found herself drawn into a multifaceted squabble between the Chinese government and the U.S. State Department on an issue of profound principle to both sides: The United States didn’t approve of China’s persecution of Chen, and China didn’t want any private political activist questioning its policies.
Here, Chen tells his story of having, as a blind person, to overcome challenges from his earliest days growing up in rural Shandong Province. The arc of his life has been a persistent and courageous struggle, not only to overcome the challenges of being disabled in China but to stand up for the rights of ordinary Chinese citizens by employing his legal skills. As a young man, he demanded that officials honor China’s law permitting blind citizens to travel free on public transportation. One of his first public battles was to stop a factory spewing its waste into water supplies close to his village. Chen prevailed in this confrontation, with the help of a sympathetic diplomat at the British embassy who helped finance the digging of a new well.
Chen’s first head-on confrontation with the Chinese Communist party, however, was when he began to investigate flagrant instances of brutality in the implementation of China’s coercive one-child policy. His prominence in human rights struggles had already secured him a brief invitation to the United States, in 2002, and the friendship of New York University law professor Jerome Cohen. Cohen was actively communicating with both Chen and the State Department when Chen first reached the American embassy in Beijing in 2012.
Friendship with American human rights activists was a major count against Chen in his ongoing battle with Chinese authorities, and he paid a high price for it. In 2005, he was kidnapped, held in a “black” (extralegal) prison, and then given a four-year sentence for mobilizing a mob to obstruct traffic. The prison was part of China’s infamous forced labor (laogai) system, and he was treated brutally during the entire sentence. On his release, he was subjected to a form of house arrest in which his wife and two children were under constant scrutiny by scores of guards, and the Chen family had to endure frequent home invasions by government-sponsored thugs rifling through their scant possessions.
Chen, blind and initially without any assistance, managed to escape from his residence, link up with sympathizers, and make his way to Beijing in a friend’s car. His mother and extended family were subject to surveillance, detention, and beatings in the days after Chen made his escape.
At first, from within the American embassy, Chen merely asked for the privilege of seeing his wife and two children and of studying freely at a Chinese university. But the Obama administration found itself in a delicate position, as it was trying to improve strategic relations with the People’s Republic of China. According to Chen, President Obama’s National Security Council initially considered his human rights to be of less importance than the U.S.-China relationship.
American diplomats, while personally kind and hospitable, made it clear to Chen that he would have to leave the embassy one way or another. But when it became apparent that he would be charged with treason and his family would continue to be harassed—indeed, possibly be beaten or killed—if he stayed in the embassy, Chen changed his request from being allowed to remain in the embassy to obtaining political asylum in the United States. In the end, he was allowed to go to the United States with his family, initially to study at NYU, and more recently to be a fellow of the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton.