Liu, Melinda, Newsweek
Byline: Melinda Liu
The true story of a dissident's life-and daring escape.
As my longtime friend, the Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, recounted his daring escape, I joked to him that blindness was his secret weapon. Chen, blind since age 1, had chosen a moonless night to make his move. Darkness was normal.
For more than a year and a half, Chen, an advocate of women's rights and for the disabled, had been held under extralegal house arrest in the far-eastern province of Shandong, having already served years in prison. When he and his wife tried to leave home or get messages to the outside world, security officers beat them brutally. Would-be visitors were roughed up, too.
Around 11 p.m. on April 22, as his captors slept, Chen scaled the compound wall. But his bid for freedom nearly failed when he dropped into an adjacent walled yard also surrounded by guards. With nowhere to run, he tensed as he heard the neighbor open the heavy courtyard door. Moving silently, he climbed up on the neighbor's roof to hide. Once the neighbor had gone inside, Chen sneaked back down and started his mad dash to freedom.
It was a grueling flight. For the next 19 hours, Chen evaded scores of guards and scaled many more walls. After breaking three bones in his right foot during one of innumerable falls, the journey became even more difficult. "It was extremely painful," Chen told me by phone from his hospital bed days later. "I couldn't stand or walk. So I crawled." Eventually, struggling along the stony ground, Chen lost track of time. When he heard or sensed someone nearby, he froze in place, moving only when he thought no one would hear him. "I waited until the wind was blowing, or until the guards were listening to music on their mobile phones. Then I would start crawling again."
Reaching an agreed-upon rendezvous, Chen met up with He Peirong, a young teacher and human-rights advocate from Nanjing also known as "Pearl," who had disguised herself as a courier to get access to the guarded village. On earlier occasions, she had tried to visit Chen and his wife but had been beaten and robbed by the thuggish guards. Now she became his rescuer, driving him to Beijing, 300 miles away, in her truck. (He, who had worked with a Western activist to make Chen's trademark dark aviator glasses a human-rights symbol, was later detained by authorities for several days before she was released.) Once in Beijing, Chen hid with friends and fellow activists before seeking refuge at the U.S. Embassy and, unwittingly, sparking a high-stakes diplomatic crisis.
I first met Chen in 2001, as I reported a Newsweek story about the "barefoot lawyers" who in the countryside were becoming a force to be reckoned with. Our friendship was born in an unlikely setting: a Starbucks coffee shop in Beijing. There, surrounded by latte-swilling yuppies, Chen told me how, in his little hamlet, fish and turtles were dying and village kids were getting rashes because of noxious river pollution from a paper mill. Chen had helped bring 36 Shandong villagers to Beijing to "petition" central-government officials so they would discipline wayward local cadres backing the mill. "Of course, many people didn't want us to come," Chen said with a smile. But he prevailed. The mill stopped production.
Hearing about Chen's flight to the U.S. Embassy, my mind cast back to the crisis in 1989 over Fang Lizhi, the dissident astrophysicist who similarly entered the U.S. Embassy, prompting 13 months of negotiations before departing for the West. (Fang died on April 6 this year, spending most of the rest his life in the United States.)
Back then the U.S. administration had much more leverage over China, which was economically weaker and politically more isolated. Now American officials faced a more confident regime. Yet Chen's arrival at the embassy posed a problem for both Chinese and American officials. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on her way to Beijing for high-level talks, and so diplomats worked around the clock to come to an agreement. …