Today's Coming Crisis Movie

Friday, November 4, 2011

Blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng makes Chinese officials jittery: Is a new, modern Mao in the making?

I first interviewed blind activist Chen Guangcheng for CNN in 2002. We drove five hours from Beijing to visit him in Dashigu, a rural hamlet in Shandong province.

During our visit, he counseled a blind farmer who was being hounded by local officials to pay taxes he claimed he did not owe.

"Next time before you pay taxes, remember to ask for a receipt," Chen advised. "You should collect evidence, otherwise it's hard to investigate and prosecute."

The 39-year-old Chen is self-taught and is one of a small group of activists pushing the margins of political dissent in China. He told me he learned the legal ropes from listening to the radio and television and from books and newspapers read to him by his wife and father.

Blinded by a fever at age two, Chen has been jailed, tortured and is still being persecuted and held under house arrest for helping villagers fight for their legal rights.

In recent weeks, many Chinese micro-bloggers have been tweeting and calling for Chen's release. With the tweets, they post an iconic photo of him wearing dark glasses and some have even posted photos of themselves wearing dark sunglasses.

Chen has advocated non-violent means to resolve conflicts, which has garnered him widespread support in China and abroad -- including a recent Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

"He's against rioting," New York University professor Jerome Cohen noted. "He wants all their efforts to be channeled into legal institutions."

But the muckraking blind lawyer has made government officials uneasy.

Several months after my interview, Chen documented cases of allegedly forced abortions and sterilizations connected to China's one-child policy in his village. He helped victims to file a class action suit against local officials, prompting their anger and vengeance.

Soon after, he was locked up in prison for four years on charges of "disturbing public order." During that time, he was awarded the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award, given to emerging leaders in Asia. more