5 Chinese Dissidents Who Managed Daring Escapes and One Who Didn’t

Chen Gaungcheng is only the latest in a long line of dissidents who escaped from China. Here are some of the most dazzling.

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Chen Guangcheng

Blind activist Chen Guangcheng's startling escape triggered a new diplomatic crisis for Beijing and Washington. But he's only the most recent in a series of rescues and disappearing acts by resourceful (and desperate) Chinese dissidents. Hundreds of human-rights advocates and protest organizers found their way to freedom via a sophisticated and well-funded "underground railroad" known as Operation Yellowbird after the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen protesters. And more recently a smaller number have defied the government's high-tech surveillance techniques to escape, or attempt to. Some key cases:

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Geng He

Geng He is the wife of dissident lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who’s been detained numerous times and beaten in custody. She managed to escape in early 2009. Geng had mentioned her husband's travails to a sympathetic fruit vendor in October 2007—and the next day, when the vendor gave her some change back after a purchase, she found in her hand a note with detailed instructions. The note took Geng and her children on a journey in which they were escorted by nameless agents; given train tickets, fake IDs, and a cellphone; phoned on the mobile with more instructions after arriving by train in southern China; and ultimately transported out of the country to  freedom over a mountainous frontier. Gao himself decided not to attempt the trip because he was too closely watched. Geng was granted asylum in the U.S. and lives in California. Gao is currently serving a three-year prison term. 

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Fang Lizhi

The case of dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi bears some similarity to Chen Guangcheng’s current situation. Fang and his wife entered the American embassy in Beijing on June 5, 1989, after Chinese troops opened fire to suppress pro-democracy protesters. His liberal writings had inspired the protest movement of the late ’80s, and he feared for his life. His request for political asylum in the embassy triggered a long diplomatic standoff as Chinese and American officials negotiated over his fate. Thirteen months later Fang was allowed to leave China aboard an American military transport plane; he lived in exile in Tucson, Ariz., and died in early April.

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Wuer Kaixi

Tiananmen protest leader Wuer Kaixi escaped from China dramatically via a clandestine network called Operation Yellowbird, hastily cobbled together after the June 1989 by human-rights advocates, business executives, Hong Kong celebrities, Western diplomats, spooks, professional people smugglers and Chinese mob bosses. Wuer was smuggled out of Beijing after the June 1989 crackdown, finding refuge in hospitals, temples, dingy safe houses, and the suffocating trunk of a friend's car. When he reached southern China, his face had been publicized on state media as one of the top “most wanted subversives” in China, and martial-law troops were swarming around the border posts. One of his contacts ventured into Hong Kong looking for help. Local activists, wary of a Chinese trap, didn't trust the intermediary—until he showed them a Polaroid photo of Wuer holding the same day's paper with a message scrawled on it: PLEASE SEND HELP. Wuer was spirited out of China to France. He later learned an underworld figure had contributed $13,000 to help bankroll his escape.

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Chai Ling

Another Tiananmen student leader, Chai Ling (female) escaped from China in April 1990 after moving from safe house to safe house and undergoing plastic surgery to evade detection. Chai had been one of China’s 21 "most wanted" during the post-Tiananmen crackdown. After arriving in exile in the West, she went to Princeton, got a Harvard M.B.A., and now runs a U.S.-based NGO called "All Girls Allowed."

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Li Lu

Also among the 500 or so Tiananmen activists who escaped from China between 1989 and 1997 via Operation Yellowbird was Li Lu. In his case, sympathetic local authorities played a role. Yellowbird operatives hustled him into a vehicle—where he found himself sitting beside a Chinese policeman. The cop’s role was to get Li past numerous checkpoints and to claim that Li was in his custody if anybody asked. Li studied at Columbia, went into banking, and was a protégé of Warren Buffet.

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Wang Lijun

And who can forget the spectacular recent Great Escape that wasn’t. Chongqing top cop Wang Lijun entered the American consulate in Chengdu earlier this year attempting to seek political asylum. But U.S. diplomats were reluctant to enrage Beijing at such a critical moment, on the eve of Vice President Xi Jinping’s official visit to Washingon. After 30 tense hours, during which time armed Chinese personnel surrounded the consulate, Wang was persuaded to walk out on his own steam—into the waiting arms of security agents. He’s now in detention, but while in the consulate he told American diplomats he feared for his life after telling his one-time mentor Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai that Bo’s wife was under investigation for corruption. The biggest bombshell: Wang alleged that Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, had masterminded the fatal poisoning of British businessman Neil Heywood, with whom she had had a business dispute, according to state media. Bo was purged, and the scandal continues to reverberate throughout Chinese politics in the runup to this year’s key succession in which Xi is slated to take over China’s top posts and other younger officials will be promoted.