Chen Guangcheng’s Next Steps

A month on from Chen Guangcheng’s arrival in New York, The Washington Post’s William Wan reports on his life and studies in the US.

Five times a week, under the guidance of an English tutor at New York University’s law school, Chen has been using the Declaration of Independence as a makeshift textbook. The 236-year-old document can make for difficult reading, but for a man who spent most of the past decade imprisoned in China while fighting for the rights of his fellow villagers, it resonates deeply. And so he persists, breaking down the syllables into manageable parts.

[…] Today, the 40-year-old self-taught lawyer and his family are still adjusting to the change — from being confined to the bare-walled room where they were watched by authorities in rural Shangdong province to a new three-bedroom apartment in bustling Lower Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, supported by tutors, law professors, PR managers, interpreters and security personnel.

The international spotlight on them has faded, but its glare is still felt in the form of entreaties from agents, politicians, reporters and activist groups. Chen and his wife have received calls from the well-meaning (disability groups wanted to give him a guide dog, Chinese American Christians offered their vacation homes) and from those with less altruistic aims (Hollywood producers are pushing to buy the movie rights to his story and a raft of TV news producers are vying to book him).

Chen is determined not to be sidetracked, however. His main focus remains on China, and most urgently on his own family and supporters who remain there. From Erik Eckholm at The New York Times:

In an interview Monday, Mr. Chen, 40, a blind, self-taught lawyer, displayed anger at the Beijing government for failing so far to investigate the local officials who persecuted him and beat his relatives. He and his wife, Yuan Weixing, said they remained desperately worried about the harsh treatment of those they left behind in Shandong Province.

In previous statements, Mr. Chen expressed hopes for rapid legal changes in China and said he took Beijing officials at their word when they promised to punish provincial officials who he said had exceeded their powers.

On Monday, he repeated his belief that the rule of law is inevitable. But he has seen no signs, he said, of an honest inquiry into what many experts call his blatantly illegal treatment over the years, retaliation for agitating on behalf of the disabled, farmers and women who were forced to have abortions. Sounding more defiant than he did right after his arrival on May 19, he threatened to embarrass the Chinese government severely if they did not act soon.

“If they don’t open an investigation in a timely manner, I will quickly make my next step,” he said. “Then the central government will not have an opportunity to be the good guy.”

Chen would not give details of this “next step”, but told Radio Free Asia in an interview last month that “there are things that I still have not made public—I don’t feel it is yet the time. The day I do so, those with any conscience at all will be shocked.”

Foreign Policy, meanwhile, has published an interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, conducted immediately after the fraught negotiations which ultimately secured Chen’s passage to the US. Details of her account are scattered throughout the article, which concludes with some speculation on China’s long-term political motives for the deal.

Until our conversation, Clinton had said virtually nothing publicly about the case of Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident whose fate had become the object of a week of frenetic negotiations when his escape from village house arrest to the U.S. Embassy collided with a visit to Beijing by Clinton herself. Amid the unfolding drama, the secretary had smiled and nodded her way through elaborately choreographed high-level annual talks and a variety of photo ops at which she gamely recited paeans to constructive dialogue and plugged cut-rate cookstoves for the developing world.

But Clinton had in fact spent the last few days in hard-nosed deal-making with the Chinese that nearly ended in an embarrassing failure, until she personally intervened, twice, with her counterpart, Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo: the first time to reassure Dai about a deal to allow Chen to stay in China and study law; then, when Chen balked at that, to secure agreement that he and his family could leave for the United States. “We were in a very difficult position because we had pushed their system just about to the breaking point,” recalled a senior official who was present. “We knew it, they knew it, and they knew we knew it.”

Other US officials have previously disclosed their version of events to The Washington Post (via CDT).