BEIJING — The blind activist at the center of a diplomatic tussle between the U.S. and China did not set out to be a dissident. Chen Guangcheng taught himself law to defend the constitutional rights he saw trampled so often.
"'What do the authorities want me to do? Lead a protest in the streets? I don't want to do that,'" New York University law professor Jerome Cohen recounted Chen as telling him in a moment of frustration after a local court rejected one of his lawsuits.
While Chen never took to the streets, his supporters rallied in his defense when he was imprisoned on what they call fabricated charges and when he was later kept under house arrest and beaten. Ultimately they helped free Chen, seeing him as a symbol for human dignity and for the promise that the law could bring justice in a society seen as unfairly tipped toward the powerful.
After Chen's surprising escape from his well-guarded rural home April 22 and into the protection of U.S. diplomats in Beijing, his fate is now being discussed in high-level negotiations. Both governments are trying to keep the case from overshadowing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's arrival Wednesday for annual talks on global hotspots and economic imbalances.
Chen's predicament — his improbable flight to hoped-for freedom — has thrilled the many Chinese who are savvy enough to get around Internet censorship to learn about it. And it has reaffirmed for his supporters the qualities they have long admired: Chen displays a determination for upholding the law while exuding a charisma that reassures those around him.
"He's just the most extraordinary person," activist blogger He Peirong said Friday, four days after she picked up a bloodied Chen outside his village and sped toward Beijing and shortly before she was detained by police for helping him.
"He never gives up. He's very spirited, willful and optimistic," she said.
His principled steeliness was on display in a video statement recorded while he was in hiding last week. In it, he calmly catalogs the mistreatment of him, his wife, his 6-year-old daughter and his mother while under house arrest. He names the officials who took part in the abuse and then demands an investigation and the protection of his family members, whose whereabouts are not known.
"I also ask that the Chinese government safeguard the dignity of law and the interests of the people, as well as guarantee the safety of my family members," Chen said.
The 40-year-old Chen is emblematic of a new breed of activists that the Communist Party finds threatening. Often from rural and working-class families, these "rights defenders," as they are called, are unlike the students and intellectuals from the elite academies and major cities who led the Tiananmen Square democracy movement.
The backgrounds of these new activists have helped them tap into the simmering grievances about a rich-poor gap, farmland expropriations, corruption and unbridled official power that are fueling the 180,000 protests that experts estimate rock China every year.
Left blind by a fever as an infant, Chen eventually left his boyhood home in Dongshigu village, amid the corn and peanut fields of Shandong province, to attend a school for the blind. Later, while studying acupuncture and massage — traditional trades for the blind in China — at Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine, he taught himself law.
Even before graduating, he began championing the rights of the disabled and farmers in Dongshigu and surrounding areas. He petitioned officials to eliminate taxes on disabled farmers and collected signatures from farmers to shut down a polluting paper factory. His reputation soared after he successfully sued Beijing's subway operator to allow the blind to ride for free.
Profiles and reports in the national media followed.
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