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U.S. Embassy Beijing Press Office/AP

Blind justice

China | Resolving the dramatic case of China activist Chen Guangcheng doesn't take care of thousands more dissidents like him

Issue: "Trouble in Egypt," June 2, 2012

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.

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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.

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