Chen Guangcheng's nighttime escape from his rural home in Shandong province was extraordinary: The human rights activist-blind since childhood-evaded round-the-clock surveillance, scaled several walls, broke a foot, walked many miles, hitched rides with contacts he'd never met, and appeared at the doorstep of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on April 26.
Chen's case created a diplomatic quagmire that led to an eventual agreement: By early May, Chinese and U.S. officials said that Chen and his family could travel to New York University to study. From a heavily guarded hospital room in Beijing, the activist awaited passports and a departure date.
But if Chen's escape was remarkable, so was the journey that led to his captivity. For months in 2005, the activist traveled village-to-village in his home province, collecting testimonies for an extraordinary effort: The self-taught lawyer amassed the first class-action lawsuit against China's brutal practice of forced abortions and sterilizations under the country's one-child policy.
Like his escape, the project was dangerous: Authorities in unmarked cars trailed Chen while he visited victims, and intimidated villagers who talked to him. Eventually, they stopped him altogether with trumped up charges and a four-year prison sentence.
After his release from imprisonment, security guards surrounded his house in Shandong. Chen and his family suffered two years of arbitrary house arrest that included brutal beatings before his escape in April.
After his escape, Chen appeared in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing just before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in China for scheduled talks. The timing raised tensions that later turned into confusion. Though Chen originally said he wanted to stay in China to advocate for human rights, that dynamic changed when he left the embassy.
The activist says when he arrived at a Beijing hospital for medical treatment and a reunion with his family, U.S. officials disappeared and his fears grew. His wife told him that after his escape, Chinese guards tied her to a chair for two days and threatened to beat her to death.
Authorities detained other members of his family and supporters suspected of helping him escape. His future in China looked bleak, and he pleaded with U.S. officials to help him take refuge in America: "I want them to protect human rights with concrete actions."
It's unclear why U.S. officials encouraged Chen to leave the embassy. Chinese officials reportedly assured U.S. authorities that Chen could relocate to another Chinese town without facing harassment or retribution-an assurance that human rights groups and some foreign policy experts declared impossible to trust.
Whatever the case, Chen and his supporters hope that his dangerous escape ends in a safe haven. But they also hope for something else: That Chen's story will underscore the human rights abuses that he fought and that continue throughout China.
Chen's pursuit of justice began with a personal grievance: In 1996, he traveled 400 miles to Beijing to complain about a problem with his taxes. This time, he won: The government gave him a refund.
According to The Washington Post, Chen went to Nanjing to pursue the only college courses available to the blind in China: acupuncture and massage. He studied law on his own, and began taking cases for disabled citizens and poor farmers.
Back in his village near Linyi, neighbors began telling Chen about grievous offenses by local officials: They had enforced the country's one-child policy by forcing local citizens to undergo sterilizations and abortions.
It wasn't an uncommon problem. China declared it would control its growing population by implementing a one-child policy in 1980. Officials boast the policy has prevented at least 300 million births in the last 30 years, whether by birth control, sterilization, or abortion. Chinese authorities regularly deny forcing citizens to have abortions or sterlizations, but thousands of families have reported the practice.
The practice often begins with officials in local provinces working to keep population numbers under control. In some areas, they face quotas for numbers of abortions and sterilizations in their regions. If they don't hit numbers, some officials force local citizens to comply.
Chen began investigating reports of such practices in Linyi, and eventually uncovered thousands of cases of forced abortions and sterilizations. Despite his own low income, his blindness, and his limited law education, Chen was relentless: He traveled house-to-house, using a small digital recorder to capture victims' testimony. A handful of other activists helped Chen verify the reports, and the attorney began filing lawsuits before his detention in 2006.
Human rights activist Reggie Littlejohn submitted some of Chen's findings during her U.S. congressional testimony last December. Littlejohn is founder of Women's Rights Without Frontiers, a California-based organization that advocates for vulnerable women and girls in China. Littlejohn submitted a report written by Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer who worked with Chen during his investigation.
The report details some of the brutal cases that Chen uncovered. Section headings include: "Linyi Family Planning Officials Beat a 59-Year-Old Man for Two Days, Breaking Three Brooms over his Head, because his Daughter Was Not Home for a Tubal Ligation Sterilization Check."
The 36-page document includes testimony from local citizens who said authorities beat and tortured them over the unauthorized pregnancies of relatives. Others asked to endure punishments in place of family members found pregnant or unsterilized.
The report also includes testimony by a woman who endured a forced abortion while seven months pregnant. The assault came after authorities beat, tortured, or detained 22 of her relatives while trying to track down the mother pregnant with a third child. "I was already pregnant for seven months and was forced to inject an oxytocic drug," she told the activists. "My baby was aborted one day later."
Near the end of the report, Teng recalled Chen's persistence despite his disabilities: "He keeps a large number of phone numbers, sounds and [path]ways in his mind, so he doesn't need anyone to accompany him to whichever family he visits in the village. Actually people with discerning eyes like us often ask him for help to point the way."
Teng dedicated the report to his own unborn child: "I keep on talking, reading, and singing to her everyday. ... I hope the world she lives in is a safe, free, and love-worthy world."
One thing is clear: The world is still unsafe for many women and unborn children around the world, including in China. During congressional testimony last September, a handful of women testified about the forced abortions they endured in China. Ping Liu, a former Chinese factory worker and U.S. immigrant, recounted routine mandated pregnancy tests in her workplace. She said co-workers told authorities about each of her five pregnancies, and that officials forced her to abort all five unborn children: "We had no dignity as potential child-bearers."
During the hearing, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., called China's policy "the most egregious attack on mothers ever."
Mothers and unborn children aren't the only group facing abuse in China. Authorities continue to crack down on religious minorities and house churches that refuse to register with the government.
During congressional testimony in February, Li Jing and Geng He testified about the serious abuses their husbands had endured as human rights activists in China. Both men, Guo Quan and Gao Zhisheng, are well known Christians dissidents. Gao Zhisheng remains in prison.
The wives say they have been unable to secure meetings with White House officials to discuss their husbands' cases. (During their testimony, the Pentagon welcomed Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping with a 300-man honor guard and a 19-gun salute.)
Meanwhile, the Texas-based Christian rights group ChinaAid reported an increase in harassment against house churches in China during the first part of the year: Authorities in Daqing province detained more than 150 church leaders during a Bible training session in March. In April, authorities arrested 53 local house church leaders during a Bible study in Ye county. Later that month, officials raided a church in Hubei province, smashing the donation box, stealing the money, forcing out the Christians, and changing the locks on the doors.
During a phone interview, Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid, said that a group of five house church pastors tried to visit Chen's remaining family in his village after his escape, but authorities chased them from the village.
Fu speaks with Chen regularly, and expects the activist will spend the summer in Texas after arriving in the United States. Fu says Chen and his family need rest and recovery after their years-long ordeal. Chen doesn't profess Christianity, but tells Fu: "God is the one who helped me escape."
When Fu thinks about China, he's glad that Chen has escaped his captors, but worries about the activists and minorities that still face persecution without an international spotlight. "He's just one of many Chen Guangchengs in China," Fu says of Chen. "There are thousands of them."