NBC's Ian Williams observations on the drama and intrigue sparked by blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.
BEIJING – Although blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng has been cast into the international spotlight since his April 22 escape from house arrest and subsequent journey to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, he still remains an unfamiliar name — even to the majority of Chinese citizens, thanks to the country’s tight control of the press and social media.
On Friday, the U.S. and China seemed to have forged the outlines of a tentative deal to end the diplomatic standoff that would let Chen travel to the U.S. with his family for a university fellowship. In the meantime, Chen’s fate still hangs in the balance.
So what exactly did he do to anger Chinese authorities so much in the first place? It all began with Chen’s foray into social activism nearly 16 years ago, when he began fighting against the Linyi government.
Born on Nov. 12, 1971, Chen grew up in a small village called Dongshigu, near Linyi City in eastern province of Shandong, approximately 400 miles from Beijing. He lost his sight after a severe fever when he was only a few months old.
He enrolled in Qingdao High School for the Blind in 1994 and graduated in 1998. It was during this time that he had his first experience questioning authority.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said "progress had been made" on a deal over the future of Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident at the center of an international firestorm. NBC's Ian Williams reports.
In 1996 Chen traveled to Beijing to challenge the Linyi government’s taxing of disabled people even though a 1991 law exempted them from taxation. He won the appeal.
He kept fighting and in 1997 he irritated the local government again by appealing on behalf of his fellow villagers in a Beijing court to stop Linyi from breaking land laws.
Chen pursued these cases all without a formal law degree; he was a self-taught lawyer who had studied acupuncture and massage at Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine from 1998 to 2001. His mother originally wanted him to become a masseur, the most common job for blind men in China, but he insisted on taking law classes on the side.
In September 2003, Chen sued the company that runs the Beijing subway system for making him buy subway tickets, despite the fact that the law said the subway should be free for disabled people. Chen again won the lawsuit.
Fighting abusive enforcement of the one-child policy
But what really brought Chen into the crosshairs of the Chinese government were his efforts to expose harsh illegal measures by local authorities in his hometown, Linyi, as they enforced China’s strict population control policy known as the "one-child policy."
Chen married Yuan Weijing in 2003 and their first son was born that year; in August 2005, they had a daughter. Some say the fact that they had two children, in defiance of China’s one-child policy, explains why Chen became interested in protesting family planning.
In 2005, the Linyi government started a campaign to "strictly enforce" the one-child policy by arresting and beating up women who broke the family planning law, forcing them to have abortions or sterilizations, heavily fining them and even arresting the relatives of those who had escaped to other cities. Chinese national laws prohibit such harsh acts.
Chen and Yuan investigated the cases and filed a class action lawsuit, while also revealing the brutality to the media. The lawsuit was rejected, but through Chen’s work the brutality of Linyi officials was exposed and drew attention from both domestic and international press.
(In particular, a Washington Post story in 2005, “Who Controls the Family?” first drew international attention to Chen’s crusade. And apparently, in thanks for that story, one of Chen’s first calls to the international media after leaving the U.S. embassy this week went to the Washington Post).
Jail, then oppressive house arrest
After Chen refused negotiations with local officials to cease his activism, Chen was taken away by the police in March 2006. He was then officially arrested in June, and sentenced to four years and three months in prison for "destruction of property and disturbing public order." His trial was a controversial one because his lawyers were detained by Yinan police on the eve of the trial, leaving him defenseless in court.
During his jail sentence, in July 2008, his wife Yuan issued a public letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao, in which she said: "I hope the country’s leader can feel the insult and helplessness I have in my everyday life. I hope the leader will listen to a jailed blind man’s concern about the country’s future."
Chen was released from prison in 2010, but then he and his wife were subjected to house arrest which included constant 24-hour video surveillance. In February 2011 he smuggled out a video showing his life under house arrest.
"I was in a small prison, and now I am in a larger prison," Chen says to the camera in the hour-long video, which shows security agents peering over walls into the family’s home.
According to another video Chen released after his recent escape from house arrest, he estimated that authorities spent as much as 60 million yuan ($9.5 million) to keep him locked up.
True belief in the rule of law
During his one-and-half year long house detention, hundreds of people, including both Chinese and foreign journalists, lawyers, friends and human rights advocates, attempted to visit Chen but were all driven away, often violently by the thugs watching him day and night.
In December 2011, Hollywood actor Christian Bale made an effort to see him along with a CNN crew and he was shoved away.
Chen’s supporters say that ultimately his goal is to see that China lives up to the rule of law that already exists there.
"Chen Guangcheng is someone who really believes in rule of law, and he wants to put what’s written in the law into practice," said Zeng Jinyan, a long-time friend of Chen family and also a human rights activist. "While so many people who can see are still talking about securing personal safety, Chen, a blind man, is already in action."
"People who know Chen say he is a Gandhi-esque figure and has a deep optimism that China will inevitably become a country ruled by law,” professor Susan L. Shirk, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of California in San Diego, told NBC News. “He is not a dissident, agitating for a change in government — he just wants China to enforce its own laws."
Many people attribute Chen’s ordeal to local government enforcement, arguing what they do is out of the ordinary, while many other believe it’s an order from the very top.
"Evidently, local officials in Linyi concluded that Chen would somehow threaten local stability if he were free to move about and speak up. Beijing did not intervene even when it realized that the actions of the Linyi officials were creating a national and international embarrassment," Kenneth Lieberthal, leading China expert at Brookings Institution, told NBC News. "The enormous reluctance by Beijing to intervene in these types of local decisions is the rule, not the exception."