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Chinese blind activist Chen should be seen as a human, not an icon

Publication Date : 08-05-2012


Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng is now a global icon. The blind lawyer's dramatic escape from Shandong captivated the world and the subsequent negotiations between China and the US over his fate became one of the biggest diplomatic crises for both countries in recent times.

A deal to have Chen moved to the Chinese city of Tianjin to study law quickly unravelled after the lawyer left the US Embassy in Beijing for Chaoyang Hospital for medical treatment. All hell broke loose for all parties involved after that.

Shortly after a joyous reunion with his wife at the hospital, Chen sensed the familiar loss of freedom as the Chinese authorities in effect sealed him in the hospital. Chen suddenly found himself unprotected as US personnel were asked by the hospital to leave. He learned of the death threat the apparently state-sponsored thugs back home made to his wife.

Many of his friends were telling him over the phone that his decision to stay in China would lead to danger for himself and his family. In this desperate moment of panic and confusion, Chen began to agree with them.

As Chen started to change his mind and told the global media that he now wanted to go to the US, desperation, panic and confusion fell on US diplomats, who had been celebrating the rare success of quickly striking the deal, especially before their boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, started important bilateral economic talks in Beijing. The once-triumphant agreement now became a worst-case scenario. The US was blamed for its naivety at best, and for selling out Chen at worst. It took no time before CNN ran the headline “Did Obama betray a Chinese hero?”

The development was also utterly unwelcome to Beijing. The extraordinary speed Beijing took to hammer both the Tianjin deal and the second deal to allow Chen to study abroad showed China's unwillingness to drag on another crisis on the heels of the fall of Communist Party heavyweight Bo Xilai. Attention to a prolonged siege at Chaoyang Hospital was the last thing Beijing wanted.

Then why did things come to their current state, which is bad for all three parties? While many commentators are trying to address this question in terms of diplomatic strategy, the true answer might be simpler: The fundamental failure of diplomats, government officials and the global media to see Chen Guangcheng the person instead of Chen Guangcheng the icon.

As Chen later clarified, there is little reason to believe the US Embassy, which went to great lengths to take Chen in to begin with, “tricked” him out of their protection. Chen is a human being capable of extraordinary courage, compassion and righteousness, but as a human being, he can be subject to misplaced optimism, impulsive decisions, confusion and self-doubt, among other things. In a rush to seal the deal and enthralled by the success of the Tianjin agreement, US officials overlooked Chen's vulnerability as a human being and took his words (“Let's go”) at face value. They also failed to stay with Chen at the key moment in the hospital to protect him and to accompany him through a turbulent stage of his life.

Some of Chen's supporters and sensation-loving media also celebrated Chen the icon instead of listening to Chen the person. The need for Chen to be a cause, a rallying point, a topic in the US presidential election, and a cool inspiration of a sunglasses-donning symbol of political activism is so great and convenient that Chen's needs as a human being become less consequential.

Of course, the lion's share of failure to recognise Chen as a person belongs to the Chinese government. Perpetually terrified by the 1989 Tiananmen crisis, the Communist Party treats any independently thinking human being as a potential threat and is spooked at any outspoken figure even if his cause has nothing to do with challenging its rule.

The new generation of Chinese dissidents calls not for the end of communist rule but for social justice, a cause the Chinese government is itself pursuing. Chen was targeted for advocating women's rights under China's one-child policy, a policy Beijing is considering to change. China's obsession with “harmony” leads it to dehumanise compassionate and righteous people like Chen, who can actually be an important driving force in China's quest for social equality. Ironically, such an approach achieves precisely what Beijing wants to avoid — the Communist Party single-handedly turning nonpolitical activists like Chen into global dissident superstars.

While it can be many things, human rights are, in essence, the respect we should pay other human beings, despite any differences to oneself. Human rights are fundamental to modern society in part because nothing good will come when we fail to see others as people.


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