Most dissidents risk the fate of falling into obscurity and irrelevance after leaving China to live in exile.
It happened to Wei Jingsheng, one of the most prominent Chinese dissidents, who moved to the United States in 1997. His calls for democracy once inspired so many in and outside of China. Not anymore.
When my friend Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer activist, escaped house arrest a year ago and was finally allowed to leave for law studies in the United States, I worried that the curse of exile would befall him, too.
But on my recent trip to Chen Guangcheng’s hometown in rural Shandong, I saw that his spirit lives on — not only in the memories of people he has helped, many of whom have now become activists themselves, but also through Chen’s regular Internet contact with local activists. It’s a different world from when Wei Jingsheng went into exile.
Last month, I visited Chen Guangcheng’s brother Chen Guangfu, whom I had met in the summer of 2000 when he accompanied his brother to Beijing. At the time, Guangcheng was a medical student fighting for the closure of a polluting paper mill near his home and applying for a British grant to build a deep-well in his village for drinking water. Fascinated by the blind man, I became the first journalist to write about his single-minded quest for justice. I called him a “barefoot lawyer,” a term that caught on.
At the train station in Linyi, the nearest city to Chen’s village, I was met by Chen Guangfu’s friend Lu Qiumei, 34, a talkative woman who is a “chaiqianhu” (people whose houses have been demolished by the government). We set off in a van with two chaiqianhu friends.
During the one-hour drive, Lu told me that a scuffle during a demolition in 2005 caused her to have a miscarriage. Her family never received a penny for having their house destroyed, even though they were promised (insufficient) compensation. When she heard about the blind lawyer, she went to his village in search of help, but was prevented from entering by security personnel. After Chen Guangcheng’s dramatic escape and exile to the United States, she became friends with his brother. She eventually established contact with Chen Guangcheng through Web-based video calls and sought his advice.
“I’ll never forget what Guangcheng told me: When your rights are taken away from you, you must fight and get them back,” Lu said.
The driver chimed in: “We Linyi people are more aware of our rights because of Guangcheng.”
Lu said Chen advises her how to approach her case and which lawyers to consult. More and more people in the area have turned to Guangcheng for help, she said, even though he lives on the other side of the world.
At Chen’s village, which I had visited several times some dozen years ago, I spent the day talking to Chen Guangfu and his family. He is being watched, he said, but he was determined to carry on his brother’s work. (Since I saw him, there have been news reports of the family being harassed by local officials.)
During my recent video call with Chen Guangcheng himself, he told me that he keeps in touch with people from all over the country. Before our conversation, he had been talking to a blind man from Inner Mongolia who runs a grocery store but also devotes much of his energy to helping other disabled people with their rights issues. Chen was planning to video-chat with a group of activists in Sichuan and give them his pitch about the importance of protecting their rights.
“How do people find you?” I asked. He replied with a laugh. “In this Internet age, if you are willing to be available, people can find you easily.”
Part of Chen Guangcheng’s ongoing appeal here in China may have to do with his focus on practical matters that have an impact on the lives of ordinary people — like forced removals from homes — rather than on abstract principles that appeal more to a few high-brow intellectuals.
On the international stage, Chen is also far from fading away. In the past year, he has been honored with many awards, including the annual award of the New York-based organization Human Rights First. In January, he received the Lantos Human Rights Prize, presented by the Hollywood star Richard Gere. And the next day, he gave a keynote speech called “In Search of China’s Soul” at the Washington National Cathedral to a standing ovation.
His inspiring story — the rise of a poor blind boy to an internationally renowned lawyer and rights activist; his daring escape; his passion for his cause and his charisma — explains how he has caught the imagination of Western people.
Last summer, when I went to visit him at the New York University campus where he studies, I got slightly lost. A chess player in Washington Square Park, seeing my confusion, shouted to me: “Are you looking for the blind lawyer? He’s at the law school.” He asked me to pass on his regards.
“I stayed relevant when I was in jail and later under house arrest,” Chen said to me. “I’ll find ways to stay relevant in America, this free country.”
Lijia Zhang is a Beijing-based writer and the author of Socialism Is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China.