NEW YORK - Chen Guangcheng, the blind self-taught lawyer and one of the best-known Chinese human rights activists, arrived in New York last spring after an incredible escape from his village in the coastal Shandong province. He finally arrived thanks to a last-minute compromise reached between the Chinese authorities and U.S. diplomats who had sheltered him in the American embassy in Beijing.
Chen now lives with his wife Yuan Weijing and their two children in NYU Law Faculty housing in Greenwich Village, not far from Washington Square Park.
It is far away indeed, in so many ways, from the tiny village where he was held under house arrest for years, with henchmen positioned in front of the house ready to beat up him and his wife or anyone who went to visit them.
“It’s a challenge being here,” he says, seated in a small Japanese restaurant, next to his wife, his eternal companion and pillar of strength.
“But we are doing well. We are doing well,” he repeats.
No longer does he pass his days asking when the end will come of the nightmare he fell into by taking on local authorities; now he is learning English and helping his children adapt to their new life. There are also meetings with American academics and a plan to write an autobiography.
“If I look back... The experience was awful. But these years didn’t succeed in filling me with terror. They did infuriate me, however,” he says, moving his head in an uncertain way, as if he was searching in the air for a way to cast off the terrible memories.
Do it again?
When asked if he would do the same thing again - help the villagers denounce the local authorities for unjust taxes for the disabled, to fight against illegitimate land expropriation, cases of intentional pollution, abuse of the one-child policy - before he could reply the ordinarily reserved Yuan Weijing interrupts, “No! Absolutely no: we would not do it again, I would not repeat anything that we have done! It was too dangerous,” she says, hiding her anguish behind a spontaneous laugh.
Then Chen starts to speak: “You can’t change history. You ask me if, going back, I would have started fighting to defend human rights? It is not a choice. It is that, and that’s it,” he says.
Yuan watches him, filling his plate with the best dishes, explaining to him what she is serving and encouraging him to eat more, because he has lost weight since arriving in the U.S.
Talking of the many dissidents who have found themselves in exile, incapable of exerting influence on their mother country, Chen says: “To leave was not what I wanted. Consider, however, that when I was at home, in Shandong, during my seven years of house arrest and prison, I wasn’t even allowed to make a telephone call. I had no contact with the outside world: now I am out of the country, but at least I can communicate with many people, even in China. Not with everybody: I have had no news of my nephew Chen Kegui, who they've accused of attempted murder for defending himself during a nighttime police raid after my escape. And they promised to leave him in peace, and to open an enquiry into the abuse that we have suffered!”
The restaurant has filled up and a group of Chinese students who arrived for lunch have started to take discrete cell phone pictures of Chen Guangcheng at our corner table. Unlike other dissidents who have become famous for their writing, Chen represents the common people, the disabled, the villagers and the expropriated, and has many supporters in China who know and respect him.
“I think it is very important that the world continues to put pressure on China to respect human rights, across the country,” he says, unaware that he has become the object of attention of other diners. “China isn’t just Shanghai and Beijing. And what happens in the countryside is much worse still.”
Since being in America he has been striving to apply this pressure, without worrying about the polarization of U.S. politics and the possibility of being used by one side or the other. “I don’t understand American politics, and frankly they interest me very little. My work concerns China and its future and I want to remain faithful to myself,” he says.
His plans for the next year include a visit to Taiwan: Chen has accepted the invitation, even if such a journey will complicate his dream to return to China as soon as possible. “I have no doubt,” he says, “that China will become a democracy. And I believe that it will happen soon. If we all work towards this objective, our future will certainly be much better. I am convinced that what Taiwan is today, China can be tomorrow: a democracy where laws and human rights are respected.”
And he repeats, filled by the sudden burst of optimism: “No, I have no doubt about this.”