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article imagePainful memories for blind activist who escaped China's grip

By Marianne Barriaux (AFP)     Sep 1, 2015 in World

Blind and a prisoner in his own home, he escaped when a guard had a moment of inattention, feeling for obstacles and scrambling over walls, breaking his foot and crawling away covered in blood to find help.

This Hollywood-style escapade is the true-life story of activist Chen Guangcheng, who after seven brutal years of jail and house arrest fled his village in eastern China in 2012 to take refuge in the US embassy before flying to start a new life in New York.

More than three years on, the man whose self-taught knowledge of law helped expose forced abortions in China says the painful memories of his treatment at the hands of the authorities still remain, particularly for his children.

"They have very severe after-effects, mainly fear," said Chen, in Paris for the launch of his autobiography.

"Sometimes when we're walking in the street, they could run ahead without a problem, but they don't. When I ask them why, they tell me it's because they're scared that there will be bad people.

Blind activist Chen Guangcheng is seen in a wheelchair pushed by a nurse at the Chaoyang hospital in...
Blind activist Chen Guangcheng is seen in a wheelchair pushed by a nurse at the Chaoyang hospital in Beijing on May 2, 2012
Jordan Pouille, AFP/File

The children, he said, had witnessed him and his wife Chen being beaten up "many times".

"That can only have traumatised them," he told AFP, wearing his trademark black glasses.

The 43-year-old, his wife and two children -- who are 10 and 12 -- now live in Washington DC, where Chen continues to defend human rights.

- Angering authorities -

Their new life is a far cry from what they endured for years in Dongshigu, a village in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong where Chen grew up.

The youngest of five brothers, he lost his sight when he was just five months old due to a mystery illness.

Unable to attend school, he would often sit outside the rural classroom listening to the lessons.

Aged 18, he discovered the existence of a school for blind people in a city in Shandong, and finally started studying with the help of his family.

Blind activist Chen Guangcheng launches his autobiography on August 31  2015 in Paris
Blind activist Chen Guangcheng launches his autobiography on August 31, 2015 in Paris
Lionel Bonaventure, AFP

Chen became increasingly interested in law, and villagers started coming to him for legal advice on how to address perceived injustices.

He took on thorny issues like pollution, discrimination and corruption, and in 2005 he exposed the forced abortions and sterilisations of women who flouted China's strict one-child policy, angering authorities so much that he was eventually jailed for over four years.

After his release in 2010, he was placed under house arrest and deprived of contact with the outside world. Guards were stationed around his small village and in the courtyard of his home.

Activists and journalists who tried to visit him were roughed up or harassed and barred from gaining access to the village -- among them Hollywood actor Christian Bale, who famously tried to travel there in 2011.

- Chinese people 'mobilising' -

Chen was beaten on several occasions, and he and his wife eventually feared he would die if he did not flee.

In April 2012, he managed to slip by the guards in an escape he describes in hair-raising detail in his book, "The Barefoot Lawyer".

When he finally reached another village, dirty, exhausted and injured, locals helped him contact friends and family who found him a car and a driver to take him to Beijing.

There, he contacted the US embassy and managed to dash into the safety of a diplomatic car with the authorities in hot pursuit.

Blind rights activist Chen Guangcheng enraged authorities by exposing forced abortions and steriliza...
Blind rights activist Chen Guangcheng enraged authorities by exposing forced abortions and sterilizations under China's one-child-only policy
Lionel Bonaventure, AFP

After tense negotiations between Washington and Beijing, China reluctantly agreed to let him and his family leave the country for good.

But Chen says he still misses China, his village and friends, and is "certain" that he will return one day.

"I still believe... that the Chinese people will be free again. I think it's inevitable, and I think it will happen in the not-so-distant future," he said.

Chen continues to openly criticise the ruling Communist Party that maintains an iron grip on the country, and which he believes is running out of steam.

"The current regime is arresting a lot of people and carrying out large-scale repression," he said.

But he said this merely reflects the fact that growing numbers of Chinese are angry about corruption, censorship and bad governance, and willing to fight it.

"More and more people are mobilising, more and more people are participating in protest movements," Chen said.

"No matter how much the Communist Party represses people, it cannot change the course of history."

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