Chen Guangcheng: The Civil Rights Icon and His Escape From Repression

by: Andrea Lo

May 15, 2012

The Chinese civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng has become an icon in representing the fight against the repression and torment frequently employed on dissidents against the country’s authoritarian regime.
Chen Guangcheng via The Economist
The blind activist – often referred to as a “barefoot lawyer,” a term used to describe self-taught legal representatives in the country – became embroiled in the centre of a diplomatic row between China and the U.S. last month, when he escaped house arrest and fled to the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Having led a long-standing campaign against the government’s various inhumane measures such as forced abortions and sterilisations associated with China’s one-child policy, which in turn led to a four-year spell in prison, Chen had been placed under illegal house arrest since September 2010. Held in high regard by Heldrights campirrights campaigners across the country, his “improbable escape” from the well-guarded location in the Shandong province came as a string of activists worked together to help bring him to safety.

During his six days under the protection of diplomats within the U.S. Embassy, Chen appealed for assistance from the American government, pleading for guarantees in his safety as well as that of his relatives. Throughout the incident, which vastly threatened relations between the Chinese and U.S. governments, details had also surfaced of Chen and his family suffering routine mistreatment and violence under the hands of officials.
Chen Guangcheng via Time

Soon after Beijing and Washington negotiated an agreement that would ensure the Chens’ safety and relocation within the country, Chen had made the decision to “go to the U.S. for and rest for a few months,” in addition to accepting an offer to attend New York University. While he insists that he is not necessarily seeking political asylum, the decision may have been made based on fears for his family’s well-being. Certainly, it has since emerged that Chen’s nephew has been arrested on suspicions of voluntary manslaughter, an act that Chen describes to be “revenge” by officials who were incensed by his “audacious escape.”

Despite Chen’s escape and imminent freedom to pursue the campaign for civil rights, he now faces an uncertain future as he continues to await authorisation from the Chinese government for him to travel to the U.S. Although his escape has raised awareness of China’s oppressive system and created wider implications for China’s position as an increasingly powerful nation, the battle against the repressive Communist regime in China seems to be a lengthy one, and it is yet a long way to go until Chen finds justice in his home country.

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