30 Apr 2012

The Donshigu Redemption

Channel 4 News International Editor, Lindsey Hilsum, on blind Chinese activist, Chen Guangcheng, and how he gave 100 armed police the slip

“Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.” Tap those lines from The Shawshank Redemption into a computer in China and press “search”. The result will be a blank screen with the legend: service denied. The phrase is banned because supporters of the blind human rights lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, see his escape last week from house arrest in his village of Dongshigu as a re-enactment of the 1994 Hollywood film starring Tim Collins and Morgan Freeman. They’ve even designed a poster, with the title The Dongshigu Redemption

Andy Dufresne, the innocent man unjustly convicted of murder played by Tim Collins, spent two decades quietly chiselling a tunnel from prison so he could escape to Mexico. Chen Guangcheng had been in prison or house arrest since 2005. But fact is more amazing than fiction, because Chen managed to scale a wall and run away despite being blind from childhood and guarded by up to 100 police officers.

“They station one team inside the house and another one outside, guarding each of the four corners. Further out, they block each road leading to my house, and extend as far as the village entrance,” he said in a video message recorded and put on YouTube after his escape. “They dedicate seven to eight people to guarding bridges in neighbouring villages….[On the] roads leading to my village, they dedicate up to twenty-eight guards to them each day.” 

Chen said he had been playing sick for several months now, so that the guards would relax. The dissident artist Ai Weiwei pointed out that his blindness was in a strange way an advantage because the moonless night was no impediment to him. His escape seems to have been carefully planned with Bob Fu, a friend from the same province, Shandong, who now runs a Christian charity called ChinaAid based in Texas.

Chen is now believed to be in the US embassy, or the house of a US diplomat, in Beijing.  That’s not easy for the Americans. In January, when the former police chief of Chongqing, Wang Lijun, tried to take refuge in a US consulate, they persuaded him to leave – he may have got into trouble with his party bosses but he was no icon for human rights. Chen is different. A campaigner for the disabled and for women forced by the Chinese authorities to have late-term abortions, he is a hero to many in the US as well as in China. He, his wife, and supporters have been harrassed and beaten as well as imprisoned.

So have a little sympathy for Hillary Clinton when she visits Beijing as planned this week. She wants to get the Chinese to come over to the US point of view on North Korea, Iran and Syria, not to mention harnessing China’s financial muscle to pull up the failing US economy. She can do none of that until Chen’s fate is decided. He has let it be known that he doesn’t want political asylum, and that any deal will have to include his wife and two children, but it’s hard to see the Chinese agreeing to let him go free in China.

In 1989, the Americans faced a similar dilemma when the astro-physicist Fang Lizhi fled to the US embassy in the wake of the killings of unarmed protestors in Tiananmen Square. He spent six months in there – long enough to write a scientific paper entitled “Periodicity of redshift distribution in a T-3 universe” which he submitted to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory for publication – before it was agreed that he could move to the US. The Americans will want to go much more quickly to sort out the issue of the blind lawyer.

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