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15 Things You Need To Know About The Blind Chinese Activist Who Became An International Incident

This is the remarkable story of Chen Guangcheng, the blind human rights dissident who has sparked a diplomatic crisis between China and the United States. It's a bizarre and terrifying story that involves everything from daring escapes to Batman.

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1. The Dissident

Handout / Reuters

Chen Guangcheng is a 40-year-old human rights activist known for campaigning against abuses of corrupt government officials in rural China.

Chen has fought everything from unfair taxation to environmental pollution, but is particularly known for his efforts to halt forced abortions and sterilizations in the name of China's strict family planning policy, commonly known as the "one-child policy."

2. Blind And Illiterate

Handout / Reuters

Chen has been blind since he was a child, the result of a severe fever.

Although he wished to become a lawyer, the blind were prohibited from earning college degrees.

Despite that discrimination, and despite being illiterate until 1994, Chen learned enough through auditing law classes that he was able to advise fellow villagers on matters of law in his hometown of Dongshigu.

3. The Barefoot Lawyer

Handout / AP

Since he has no law degree, Chen is technically not a lawyer. He studied acupuncture and massage and was for a time a practicing masseur.

Chen is known in China as a "barefoot lawyer," meaning he is a self-taught legal activist from the country.

4. Forced Abortions And Sterilization

Handout / AP

In 2005, government agents began brutally enforcing the one-child policy in Chen's province. Regional authorities forced thousands of women to undergo forced abortions and sterilizations. There were reports of captivity and torture for those who tried to evade the family planning measures. At least two women were forced to abort their children just days before their due date.

With nowhere else to turn, distraught villagers turned to Chen, their blind barefoot lawyer. "Someone has to fight for people with no voice," Chen later said to Time Magazine. "I guess that person is me."


5. Class Action

Handout / AP

Chen organized a class action lawsuit on behalf of the victimized peasants in his province. Although the lawsuit was thrown out, the publicity and international outcry surrounding the case forced the State Family Planning Commission to arrest some regional officials who carried out the campaign of compulsory abortions and sterilization.

6. Abduction

Handout / AP

Chen's advocacy earned him a spot on the 2006 Time 100 Most Influential List. Three hours after being interviewed by Time for their article, Chen was picked up on the street in Beijing and forced into an unmarked vehicle.

He was taken back to Dongshigu and placed under house arrest for nearly a year. Local officials claimed he was conspiring with foreign, anti-China agents. Chen, a blind man, was routinely beaten by thugs during this period.

8. House Arrest

Handout / AP

Chen served his full sentence and was released from prison in 2010. He was then promptly put back under house arrest. Chen, who is married to Yuan Weijing and has two children, is not allowed to communicate with his family while he is detained.


9. Christian Bale Assaulted

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While he was in China filming a movie in 2011, Christian Bale and a CNN crew attempted to visit Chen. Bale wanted to express his solidarity with Chen, but was attacked by guards as he approached the house where Chen was under arrest.

Bale and the crew had rocks thrown at them and were followed for 40 minutes as they tried to leave.

10. The Escape

Handout / AP

On April 22, after 19 months of detainment and constant surveillance, Chen managed to escape house arrest. The blind man slipped out under cover of darkness, climbed over walls and managed to avoid dozens of security agents (the above photo shows guards surrounding the house Chen escaped).

He wandered through the woods for 20 hours, fell hundreds of time and broke his foot. Thanks to a cellphone smuggled to him while he was under house arrest, he met up with supporters that spirited him to Beijing. The guards didn't notice he was missing for several days.

Fellow dissident Ai Weiwei said of the daring nighttime escape, "You know he's blind, so the night to him is nothing."

11. The United States Embassy

Handout / AP

Chen was taken to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and given shelter, although the U.S. initially refused to confirm or deny his presence at the embassy. Chen reportedly spoke directly with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the phone.

Chen is seen in the above photos at the U.S. Embassy with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, right, and U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, center.

12. Negotiations

Handout / AP

According to State Department officials, Chen never sought asylum in the United States nor asked to leave China. He initially only wanted to renegotiate the terms of his detainment, seeking to be able to study for a law degree and to gain assurances his family would not be harassed.

U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke led behind-the-scenes negotiations with his Chinese counterparts to help meet Chen's demands.


13. Reunited, A Change Of Heart

Handout / AP

On May 2nd, after feeling both sides had met a reasonable agreement, Chen was transferred from the U.S. Embassy to a hospital to seek medical attention for his broken foot.

Later that night, after reuniting with his family and hearing tales of threatened retribution, Chen had what is described as a "change of heart" over the earlier deal. Chen now says he felt pressured by U.S. officials to leave the embassy.

14. Seeking Asylum, Smuggled Out On Hillary's Jet

Jordan Pouille / Getty Images

Chen now says he wants to leave China altogether, as he can't guarantee the safety of himself or his family. Chen has even gone so far as to ask that Hillary Clinton fly him and his family to the United States on her personal jet.

Chen's escape and plea for asylum comes during bilateral meetings between the U.S. and China, in which the U.S. is seeking cooperation from China on topics ranging from trade to Iran's nuclear program, making the diplomatic situation even more sensitive.

15. Shawshank And A Plea To President Obama

Kin Cheung / AP

Since Chen has become a pro-democracy folk hero in China, the government has sought to suppress his story. Internet searches regarding Chen have been censored, everything from "blind person" to "Shawshank Redemption," as Chen's dramatic escape has been likened to the jailbreak of Andy Dufresne from the book and movie.

Activists who want to show solidarity with Chen have taken to wearing his trademark sunglasses at protests around China.

As of this writing, Chen is still in the hospital and is being visited by U.S. diplomats. In an interview with CNN, Chen had a message for President Obama: "Please do everything you can to get our whole family out."