Blind dissident’s great escape embarrasses China

Military police outside the US embassy where Chen Guangcheng (inset) took refuge © Getty Images

Blind activist Chen Guangcheng has miraculously escaped the clutches of the mighty Chinese government. Will the USA give him shelter, or was the escape in vain?

With total control of every public office and 1.6 million disciplined policemen at its disposal, the Chinese Communist Party is a daunting foe. Yet this week it met its match: one poor blind man, with a dedicated network of supporters.

Chen Guangcheng’s struggle began in 2005 with a lawsuit against his local government. Struggling to enforce China’s controversial family planning laws, officials had resorted to forcibly aborting nine-month-old foetuses.

Chen, originally an illiterate masseur, had educated himself in Chinese law; his campaign was informed as well as passionate. The ‘barefoot lawyer’ was soon identified as an inspirational leader – and an enemy of the state.

Since 2006, Chen has been a captive: four years in jail, two as a prisoner in his own home. The dilapidated house was permanently surrounded by hired thugs, who beat his family and roughly ejected visiting supporters.

Chen’s escape required as much determination as his activism. For weeks, he lay in bed feigning weakness while communicating with outside activists using secret signals. Chen set his escape for the dead of night, when his captors would be crippled by darkness. ‘He’s blind,’ said fellow rebel Ai Weiwei. ‘To him the night is nothing.’

For a week Chen evaded the law by hopping between supporters’ houses. His destination was, as one supporter put it, ‘the only 100% safe place in China’: the US embassy, 300 miles away in Beijing.

Amazingly, activists claim that Chen is now in American hands. His miracle escape has revealed a tight network of underground dissidents. The government is mortified; already it is hunting down anybody suspected of assisting. But at least Chen is safe... or is he?

While praising Chen’s campaign, the US government has at the same time courted his oppressors. China is the world’s second greatest power; every year America relies more on its cooperation in diplomatic affairs. Perhaps even more importantly, the USA owes China over $1 trillion in debt. Without Chinese cooperation, the US economic recovery could be crippled.

Defend Chen, or pacify China – both options seem poisoned.

Blind justice

Pragmatic policy planners say that the USA must stay focused on the big picture. Chen’s story is powerful, they say, but a good relationship between the USA and China is vital for a harmonious world. Sadly, this battle is simply not worth fighting.

Let us be clear, say activists: a blind man has been cruelly imprisoned for years after bravely speaking out against forced abortion. If that is not worth making a stand for, then what is? The ‘big picture,’ they say, is a cold, inhuman thing if individuals like Chen are airbrushed out of it.

You Decide

  1. Should the USA sacrifice Chen’s freedom for the good of a more stable and cooperative world?
  2. Should leaders allow their personal feelings to influence important decisions?


  1. Write a story about somebody attempting to escape to freedom.
  2. Research Chen’s case and write a letter to the Chinese government asking them to give him his freedom – try to be persuasive but respectful. If you agree with the cause, you could consider sending it.

Some People Say...

“If somebody comes to your doorstep pleading for shelter, there is never an excuse to turn them away.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What will happen if the USA and China fall out?
If the worst came to the worst and relations broke down completely, China could hold the US economy hostage: it could sell on US debt, forcing America to pay out, and limit trade between the two countries. This is very unlikely, since China would lose out as well – but even a less dramatic souring of relations could be bad.
A little less trade, for a start, which could slow the American recovery. That in turn would hurt economies in Europe and elsewhere – every country would be likely to suffer a little. China-US relations are also crucial in any situation that requires international cooperation, especially since China can veto military operations in the UN.

Word Watch

Family planning laws
In the middle of the 20th Century, China’s population rocketed from 540 million to almost a billion in 25 years. The government responded with the infamous ‘one-child policy,’ limiting the size of each family to a single child. Many babies were aborted or even killed. Particularly shocking, many couples killed female children because boys could provide more money. The policy has now been relaxed, but remains extremely divisive.
Chinese law
Although it is far from a democracy, China is supposedly governed by the rule of law. However, the legal rights of individuals are often overlooked if they come into conflict with the state.
Second greatest power
Economically, that is. It also has the second largest military by size, and its nuclear programme is progressing fast. Half a century ago, China was considered a backward country, but decades of spectacular economic growth, often over 10% per year, have launched the country as a major world player.


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