Visiting hours at Chaoyang hospital in Beijing are generally from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. The hospital operator readily gave that information, but she stumbled when it came to the VIP inpatient ward where legal activist Chen Guangcheng had been confined since emerging from six days of refuge at the U.S. embassy. "I can't connect you to that section," she said curtly. "Their phone is under repair."
In the days since Chen left American protection on May 2, the blind activist has been isolated from the world, with even U.S. diplomats mostly blocked from visiting him. Chen, who fled from extra judicial house arrest into the arms of the Americans, is used to enforced seclusion. Since 2005, when he began fighting for women who were compelled to undergo sterilization and late-term abortions as part of a twisted application of China's one-child policy, Chen had been jailed on trumped-up charges and later held, without charge, in his farmhouse in Shandong province. Now Chen's fate has drawn global attention. He left the U.S. embassy, according to the Americans, only after he was given Beijing's assurances that he could "live like a normal Chinese citizen."
But what is normality in a country that has risen to unprecedented economic heights without the rule of law? Despite China's undeniable achievements, it remains a surreal place where hospital phones are conveniently under repair and a man who is supposedly free cannot arrange for any friend to visit him. "I asked them to take me out in a wheelchair to get sunshine, but they wouldn't agree," Chen tells me by phone, his only connection to the world. "They said, 'No, there are a lot of journalists outside.'"
The U.S. has been criticized as naive for taking the Chinese at their word when they promised that Chen, 40, could resume an ordinary life in China and even attend law school an option that was previously unavailable to him as a sight-impaired individual. But it is not the U.S. that beat and jailed a blind man whose only sin was to speak out for women subjected to maltreatment that Beijing's own laws prohibit. That burden of shame is China's alone.
Chen, who has been offered a fellowship to study law in New York City, may soon be allowed to depart for the U.S. with his family. But even if Chen leaves his homeland, China is still helmed by a regime so obsessed with "stability maintenance" that it can treat constitutionally guaranteed rights as optional frivolities. Consider the fallout from Chen's case alone: the concentric circles of abuse stemming from a blind man's flight from house arrest in which he scaled walls, forded rivers and crawled through fields. Chen's nephew in Shandong is under criminal detention. Local authorities are busily erecting an electric fence around his house and have installed seven surveillance cameras inside. Those who helped with Chen's escape, plus some who simply talked to him on the phone, were for a time deprived of their freedom. Chen's lawyer tried to visit him at Chaoyang Hospital and was beaten up by plainclothes brutes.
Around a dozen foreign journalists have been summoned by public-security officials in Beijing, who told them that entering the hospital grounds was illegal and that doing so again would result in their visas being revoked. This month, an enterprising correspondent for al-Jazeera English was kicked out of China for violating unspecified rules and regulations. The case is unconnected to Chen's but indicative of a growing mood of official intolerance.
Crude attacks continue in China's state-controlled press. In the Beijing-based Global Times, Chen was accused of stealing water from fellow Shandong villagers by digging a well funded by the British. Was Chen as a malevolent water hoarder the best that China's propagandists had to offer? U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke, who spent hours with Chen while he was sheltered in the embassy, has been derided by Chinese media commentators for engaging in "little tricks" and for being a Chinese-American "banana" yes, that would be yellow outside, white inside.
The sad fact is that Chen's case is an anomaly. If he had not escaped house arrest so dramatically and with such a profound disability he never would have gained such international fame. Today more people around the globe recognize Chen in his trademark sunglasses than can identify jailed 2010 Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo. There are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of other unknown Chinese prisoners of conscience. They live in a world where justice is not blind but all too often invisible. Who will bear witness for them?
With Reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing