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47 Chen Guangcheng and the Rhetorical Politics of Dissent: Imagining Human Rights in U.S.–Sino Relations Michelle Murray Yang T he situation had all the makings for a compelling melodrama: after years of being confined to house arrest and forced to endure countless beatings, an activist deftly scales a wall in the dark of night in a daring escape to freedom. To elude his captors, he threads his way through the maze of cornfields and ravines surrounding his village until he reaches a coconspirator, who takes him under the cover of night to Beijing, where the intrepid man seeks and is given refuge within the U.S. embassy. The story is made even more compelling by the fact that the protagonist is blind, his affliction the result of a severe fever suffered during his childhood. In this harrowing tale of dissent from oppression and escape from captivity, we find a synecdochical representation—a compelling part that figures a larger whole—of the dangers faced by those who criticize the Communist Party of China (CPC or the Party) in the name of human rights. After serving eighteen months under house arrest, Chen Guangcheng 48 Michelle Murray Yang escaped from guards at his home in Shandong Province on April 22, 2012. He fled to the U.S. embassy in Beijing where he would stay for six days before checking into a Beijing hospital for an injury he sustained to his foot during his escape. After heated negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials, a representative for the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing issued a statement in early May 2012 that if Chen wanted to study outside of China, he was able to do so “like any other Chinese citizen.”1 While Chen was given a fellowship to study law at New York University and he and his immediate family were allowed to leave China, his extended family and friends, some of whom aided his escape, remained in jeopardy. In fact, in the wake of Chen’s flight from house arrest, his nephew, Chen Kegui, was arrested. He was later found guilty of “intentional infliction of injury” and sentenced to three years and three months in prison for defending his family from officials who forcibly searched their home after his uncle’s escape.2 According to Human Rights Watch, Chen Kegui’s trial was “widely seen as retribution against Chen Guangcheng and fell short of international standards.”3 Thus, as in the case of Liu Xiaobo’s family, the CPC engaged not only in the persecution of Chen but in the harassment and eventual imprisonment of his family members as well.4 Prior to his escape from China in 2012, Chen Guangcheng earned notoriety as the “barefoot lawyer” in the late 1990s as a result of his legal activism involving China’s one-child policy and the CPC’s use of forced abortions to punish those who violated the policy. “Barefoot lawyer” is a contemporary expression that can be traced back to the term “barefoot doctor,” which was used during the Cultural Revolution to denote rural peasants whom the government allowed to receive rudimentary medical training.5 In comparison, “barefoot lawyers” refers to self-educated legal activists in China who challenge unfair governmental practices through litigation and by offering free legal services to impoverished citizens. As Chen explains in his memoir, “the crucial difference” between these terms is that the Chinese government “has never supported barefoot lawyers.”6 In 2005, he filed a class-action lawsuit in China suing local officials in Shandong’s Linyi prefecture on behalf of poor women who claimed to be victims of forced abortions and sterilizations. He was subsequently tried and found guilty in 2006 of “organizing a mob to disturb traffic” as part of a protest and was sentenced to four years and three months in prison.7 Chen Guangcheng and the Politics of Dissent 49 Upon his release from prison in September 2010, Chen remained under house arrest with his wife, children, and mother. While this record of activism left Chen largely unknown outside of China, his daring escape from local authorities quickly made him an international hero among human rights supporters, making his fate a complicated issue for U.S. and Chinese leaders to navigate. Indeed, the U.S. media lauded Chen for his courageous defiance of the Chinese government . For example, a May 2012 editorial in the New York Times praised the escaped activist as “a man of extraordinary courage”;8 four days...


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