The blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng climbed over the back wall of his home April 22 — and escaped nearly six years of torture, malnutrition and isolation. During his detention, Chen became a global star, his dark glasses emblematic of the embattled movement of human rights defenders in China. Chen is my hero and friend. He is under the protection of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. His status and safety present a pivotal test for freedom in China and for U.S. credibility as a defender of freedom.
Chen’s escape was planned carefully for many months. The actor Christian Bale was the most prominent person who tried to visit Chen during his years of house detention, but hundreds of Chinese citizens sought a similar audience and were forcibly turned away by police. Chen’s most passionate supporters were the Chinese netizen community. One netizen, He “Pearl” Peirong, provided logistic support for Chen’s escape, picking him up in Shandong province — where Chen and I both hail from — and taking him to Beijing.
I am awed by the courage of those who helped Chen escape. Pearl told me she is willing to die with Chen because he is such a “pure-hearted courageous person.” I was talking to her last week when she said “guo bao lai le,” that state security had arrived. Now, she is under arrest at an undisclosed location, and her blog has been erased.
Chen is often described as a “dissident,” but that is a misnomer. Despite years of brutal treatment for seeking to bring attention to those victimized by China’s “one-child” policy, he has never established a political party or organization. He has never advocated overthrowing the Communist Party. In the video he posted online after his escape, he says that the injustices his family experienced “hurt the image of our Party.” And the first thing he told me after escaping was that he wanted the outside the world to know that he was not going to leave China but to “fight to the end for the freedom of my family. . . . I want to live a normal life as a Chinese citizen with my family.”
Chen’s escape prompted a predictable brutal response. After police in Shandong realized — four days after Chen got away — that he was gone, they took Chen’s older brother and his nephew, Chen Guangfu and Chen Kegui, into custody. Media reports indicate that Chen’s mother, wife and 6-year-old daughter are tightly guarded by Chinese security forces.
This is a pivotal moment for U.S. human rights diplomacy. The United States must stand firmly with this broadly popular individual or risk losing credibility as a defender of freedom and the rule of law. There is a reason Chinese dissidents revere this country. President Obama promised in his inauguration address: “to those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
This blind lawyer, whose first name, “Guang Cheng,” means “light” and “integrity,” has been silenced for almost six years because the Chinese government views his assistance to the vulnerable as a threat. Chen’s desire for justice and freedom should put him firmly on the “right side” of history.
By extending the United States’s hand to Chen, the Obama administration can help the dictators of Beijing unclench their fist. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken out for Chen in the past and advocated his release. Her visit to Beijing this week is a chance to connect words and deeds. I hope that Clinton will press China to guarantee the safety of Chen and his family.
China’s future will be built by those who act with Chen’s integrity and seek the light of justice, equality and freedom for all Chinese citizens. China will move toward the “right side of history” only when it recognizes that people like Chen are its strength, not its enemy.
Bob Fu is founder and president of the China Aid Association, a Texas-based Christian human rights organization campaigning for Chen Guangcheng’s freedom.