The text message on my cell phone came last Thursday as I was standing in my Shanghai apartment, surrounded by packing boxes and bubble wrap. Preparing to leave after more than six years in China, I was feeling nostalgic. This is not an easy place to be a journalist--phones are often tapped, sources sometimes harassed--but the economic developments that have transformed this country bring with them an infectious optimism. People's lives are getting better. The polite packer helping to direct traffic in our apartment told my husband he had helped move us into our flat three years ago. Back then he was a simple day laborer; now he's a foreman. Many stories in China have a similar upward trajectory. If for nothing else, I would miss China for the promise it holds.
Then came the text message: "Chen Guangcheng has been sentenced to four years and three months' imprisonment." I first met Chen a year ago. A native of China's eastern Shandong province, the self-schooled legal activist came to Shanghai to publicize the plight of women who had been forced to undergo abortions or sterilizations as part of the nation's family-planning campaign. China has tried for more than two decades to lower its population through its "one-child" policy, but the coercive measures used in Shandong's Linyi region are now illegal. By publicizing abuses committed by local bureaucrats, Chen believed he could persuade higher-level officials to step in and stop them.
A few days after our first meeting, we got together again in Beijing. As we were leaving, Chen had a last request: Would it be possible to see what I looked like? He lifted his hands and felt my face. My nose, he commented, wasn't especially big for a foreigner's. Chen was blinded by a fever as a small child. His hands--as well as an unusually supportive family that reads out loud to him everything from law books to letters from peasants requesting his legal aid--are what allow him to see the world.
Just hours after our interview, Chen was detained by security officials, who had traveled hundreds of miles from Linyi to Beijing. For the next six months, he was kept under virtual house arrest. Despite the harassment, which included several beatings, he remained hopeful: the State Family Planning Commission in Beijing admitted publicly that Linyi officials had broken the law. Chen kept in contact with foreign journalists through cell phones that friends and family smuggled in for him. Last September I wrote a story for TIME about forced sterilizations in Linyi. The magazine subsequently named Chen to its annual list of the world's 100 most influential people.
After trying to leave his village without official permission last March, Chen was arrested again. The local police finally announced in June that he was being held on charges of damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic. (Witnesses on the scene dispute the allegations.) In previous years, a plea from the U.S. State Department might have helped get a Chinese political prisoner released. But foreign pressure has less effect these days, in part because the international community holds little leverage. China is the world's factory. It holds bountiful foreign-currency reserves. It will be host to the Olympics in 2008. The balance has shifted from China's feeling as if it needs the world to the world's needing China.