05.21.12

Chen Guangcheng’s New Life in America: A Day in Greenwich Village

Chen Guangcheng now lives in Greenwich Village and hangs out in the park with his family. Melinda Liu on how the blind dissident is America’s newest celebrity—and what that means for China.

Feeling the warm sun on his face, blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng relaxed in an outdoor playground with his family Sunday, basking in perfect spring weather—and not having to worry about being beaten or harassed for the first time in years.

Chen, his wife, Yuan Weijing, and their two kids started a new life in a quiet, leafy Greenwich Village neighborhood full of university students sunbathing in grassy parks and yuppies walking their dogs. It’s a long way from their rural Shandong farmhouse—a virtual prison with blocked-up windows, surveillance cameras, and dozens of guards who threatened and beat would-be visitors. The family’s Saturday arrival in the U.S. marked the end of a seven-year ordeal for Chen, who’d angered Shandong authorities after exposing abuses by local family-planning officials. He’s been through a flawed trial on what many say were trumped-up charges, physical abuse, intimidation, more than four years in prison followed by extralegal house arrest since September 2010, a miraculous escape to the American Embassy in Beijing, and a jittery stay in a Beijing hospital as Chinese and American diplomats scrambled to defuse the mounting diplomatic crisis over his fate.

After an agreement by two governments allowed Chen to travel to the U.S. on a student visa, bilateral tensions now have calmed—and Chen says he wants to take a breather. On arrival in Manhattan, Chen said through a translator to media and well-wishers who’d gathered near Washington Square to welcome him: “For the past seven years, I have never had a day’s rest, so I have come here for a bit of recuperation in body and spirit.”

That may take some time. The office where he’ll pursue a fellowship in legal studies at New York University is just six blocks from his new home in Washington Square Village. But Chen cannot walk on his own. He broke several bones in his left foot when he fell during his dramatic escape; he wears a cast and has difficulty supporting himself even with crutches. He was in a wheelchair when he went to the playground of his residential compound to sit in the fresh air, holding hands with his wife. (During his two-week hospital stay in Bejiing, authorities didn’t want Chen to leave his room, even when he asked to be allowed to sit with his wheelchair in the sun.) Chen also is believed to be suffering from chronic colitis; during and right after his 13-hour plane journey, which was quite turbulent, Chen experienced two bouts of severe nausea. He slept only three hours on the plane.

Even so, he and his family are in good spirits. Chen, who taught himself Chinese law and helped start a grassroots movement of like-minded “barefoot lawyers,” looks forward to starting his law studies as soon as possible. Chen’s “welcoming committee” in the U.S. was headed by Professor Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert who’s known Chen for years and helped arrange his accommodations and fellowship at NYU.

A TV-satellite truck has materialized outside Chen’s apartment block, which has also been staked out by reporters and photographers who scrambled when he appeared in the playground. (“It’s exciting. I’ve never heard so many police sirens as I did last night,” said one of Chen’s new neighbors about his arrival in the building.) But Chen didn’t want to grant media interviews on their first day in America. He and his wife are especially concerned about protecting the privacy of their 10-year-old son, Chen Kerui—who’d lived separately from his parents for several years so his father’s imprisonment and harassment wouldn’t disrupt his schooling—and their vivacious 6-year-old daughter, Chen Kesi, who succumbed to her jet lag by early evening. “She was fast asleep on the couch when I first arrived,” said one visitor, “but then she woke up and greeted me full of giggles.”

During and right after his 13-hour plane journey, which was quite turbulent, Chen experienced two bouts of severe nausea. He slept only three hours on the plane.

Chen and Yuan are keen to ensure their children have a smooth transition as they learn the language, find new friends, and enter new schools. The parents may need some time to adjust to their new lives as well. First, there’s the language barrier; neither Chen nor Yuan speak very much English. Now that he’s left home, there’s also a question of how much influence Chen will have in his campaign to improve human rights for Chinese. In past years, Chinese authorities have allowed a number of high-profile dissidents—including the late astrophysicist Fang Lizhi (who’d first spent 13 months inside the U.S. Embassy), Tiananmen student protest leader Wang Dan, Uighur human-rights activist Rabiya Kadeer, and others—to travel to into exile in the U.S. as a way of ridding China of so-called troublemakers. Beijing counts on exiled dissidents to become increasingly marginalized as their ties to China grow stale.

This is partly why Chen feels “mixed” and a little “sad” to be leaving China, as he told a handful of journalists on his plane. He also told me before he left Beijing that “a Chinese official, who was granted authority by the central government to make this promise to me, guaranteed that I would be allowed to go home.” However, Chen’s status in the West as a media celebrity—and the respective agendas of various U.S.-based organizations that want a piece of him—may try to push him to say or do things that irk Beijing and may jeopardize his return—or trigger retaliation against his relatives and supporters back home. “Chen will have to balance what he wants to do—which is to go back to China someday—with what he’ll be expected or challenged to do in the U.S.,” said Bob Fu, who heads a Texas-based Christian human-rights organization. “People have very high expectations for him.”

For now, both Chen in the U.S. and authorities back in China seem to be taking a cautious “wait and see” attitude in terms of what each side wants to say about the other. The Global Times, which often reflects nationalistic views, did not attack him directly at first. But it described Chen’s journey as a “one-time show” in a thinly veiled warning that neither the U.S. Embassy nor other Chinese dissidents should expect the embassy to become a pit stop for waves of malcontents hoping the U.S. will “rescue” them.

“Some American politicians have made a lot of statements about Chen Guangcheng, lifting him very high, which could prove unbeneficial to him,” stated the newspaper, “because giving him so much praise could force him to charge forward into the international political game that is completely out of his control.” While it may be early days yet, the fact that the Chinese government has not vilified Chen immediately after his departure is a good sign. Still, it by no means guarantees that Chen’s new journey will be a smooth ride.