Five years ago this Friday, Chen Guangcheng and his family landed at Newark Liberty International Airport to start their new life in the United States.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Chen had made a hasty departure from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, the culmination of a nearly month-long diplomatic tussle that ended years of mistreatment and imprisonment that the blind human rights activist had endured at the hands of the Chinese government.
While nobody would have faulted Chen for taking a much-needed break after years of fighting against forced abortions under China’s one-child policy, corrupt officials and the mistreatment of the disabled, he is not one to rest on his laurels.
Chen studied law at New York University, started teaching at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., was named a senior fellow at the conservative Witherspoon Institute, published a memoir of his life in China and, to this day, continues to be one of the most vocal critics on Beijing’s attacks against human rights activists.
“The Communist Party of China has never ceased cracking down on the people of China,” Chen told Fox News. “But now the Chinese people are fighting back. There’s an awakening going on with the population and the CPC is getting more afraid.”
Chen, who lost his eyesight to a mysterious fever shortly after his birth in 1971, began his life as a political activist early – getting elected as a student representative at his first school and petitioning for basic rights like running water and freedom of movement. But it wasn’t until he returned to his village in the eastern province of Shandong after finishing college that Chen truly began his work as the so-called barefoot lawyer and to gain the attention of local Communist party apparatchiks.
With no formal legal training -- he went to a school for traditional Chinese medicine and massage -- Chen began advocating for the rights of the disabled and against the late-term abortions and forced sterilization of women found in violation of China’s one-child policy. After filing an unheard of class-action lawsuit on behalf of women from the city Linyi who were forced to have abortions by the city's family planning staff, local officials put Chen under house arrest and beat him when he tried to escape.
This began a period of seven years that saw Chen either imprisoned or under house arrest on a host of charges from damaging property to organizing a mob. Instead of silencing Chen, his detainment had the opposite effect and he quickly became a cause célèbre among politicians, Hollywood celebrities and human-rights groups.
Amnesty International declared Chen to be a prisoner of conscience, actor Christian Bale attempted to visit him and his plight gained the attention of lawmakers on both sides of Washington’s political divide.
“His story is something that transcends party lines” Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey who tried to visit Chen when he was under house arrest, told Fox News. “Everyone should care when such a hero is fighting for such basic human rights.”
Chen and his family eventually escaped from house arrest under the cover of nightfall in April 2012 and sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. After a month of tense negotiations with the U.S. State Department, the Chinese government eventually granted Chen permission to study abroad when New York University offered him a visiting scholar position.
The activist arrived in New York City hobbling on crutches after suffering a broken foot in his escape and surrounded by a throng of well-wishers and reporters.
“I don’t really feel that happy, but rather sentimental,” Chen said, according to the New York Times. “After all the suffering for years, I don’t have those tearful moments anymore, but I do feel something inside.”
The U.S. may have helped Chen escape China, but his host nation was not immune to his criticism.
In his memoir, “The Barefoot Lawyer,” Chen alleges that the Obama administration decided that his case must not hurt relations between the U.S. and China. He also says that the State Department brushed off his demands that the Chinese investigate and punish those responsible for his poor treatment and instead urged him to accept any deal with Beijing. Chen also said that NYU forced him to leave his post at the school after pressure from the Chinese government.
Those statements drew prompt rebukes from both the U.S. government and NYU and have been blamed – along with his friendliness with numerous conservative thinkers and his pro-life stance – for his causes not maintaining the level of attention lavished on other human rights’ crusaders.
“No one in New York has anything good to say about him,” Jerome Cohen, a law professor at NYU and a longtime mentor of Chen’s, told Fox News. “But he is not a simple person by any means.”
Much like his activism in China, however, Chen has refused to stay silent, continuing to be an outspoken advocate for human rights in his homeland: decrying the continued use of late-term abortions and forced sterilization; the ramped-up crackdown on human rights lawyers under Chinese President Xi Jinping; and the persecution of his own family members still living in the country.
While Chen admits that it is too early to make a judgment on how the administration of President Donald Trump will handle its relations with China, he hopes that it will push the government in Beijing to improve its human-rights’ record.
“That is a basic American value and in the U.S. we need to reinvigorate the sense of that value,” Chen said. “For many years the U.S. has operated on a policy of appeasement in regards to China, but when it comes to authoritarian dictatorships, the U.S. needs to stand up and say no.”