Saturday, November 12, 2011

Dreaming of a Normal Life in China

BEIJING — One evening last month, I mentioned the name Chen Guangcheng in a speech I delivered at a university in Qingdao in eastern China. Chen, a well-known human rights lawyer, lives only a few hundred kilometers away from where I was speaking.

His life is anything but normal. As a price for his activism, Chen spent more than four years in prison. He was released in September of last year and promptly committed to house arrest, although officials deny he is a prisoner. For more than a year he has been under 24-hour surveillance by several hundred burly thugs — a prisoner in his own home. Chen, who turns 40 on Saturday, is blind and said to be in poor health.

After the speech a student asked me if I planned to visit Chen. I had never met him but I have felt an affinity for him for a long time: We both have legal backgrounds and I greatly admire his courage. I had talked about Chen on my blog but otherwise my support for him had been feeble. I felt ashamed that I did not respond one way or the other to the student’s question.

My calculations were simple: I don’t want my books banned; I don’t want my name on the government’s sensitive-word Internet filter; I don’t want my upcoming overseas trips jeopardized.

But most of all, I’m scared. I’m scared of being beat up, and I’m scared of losing my freedom. I live in a world in which freedom is scarce, and I treasure it a lot, even if that freedom is pathetically small.

You may ask, is visiting someone really that dangerous? This is a normal question that comes from normal people. But in the abnormal world that is modern China, an innocent visit can be dangerous.

The next day while eating lunch, four otherwise cowardly people found courage in companionship and decided to go to Chen’s village to visit the hero. We set off within an hour.

Early the next morning we arrived in Dongshigu. Near the entrance to the village there were houses filled with men on each side of the unpaved road. A short man wearing a gray-green jacket came out and blocked our way. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“Is this Dongshigu village?” I smiled.

He responded by repeating the question. “What are you doing?”

“We’ve come to see Chen Guangcheng. Is he here?” I asked.

The man was taken aback. Then he sidled up close: “There’s been a lot of thievery in the village lately, you know, chickens and cows have gone missing. So you can’t come into the village.”

More smiling. “Rest assured, we’re not here to steal anything; we’re here to see Chen Guangcheng. Once we’ve seen him, we’ll leave.”

Several men came out of a house. One of them was a middle-aged man wearing a black corduroy jacket. His tone was rude. “It’s autumn harvest time and none of the men are here. We don’t want to lose any stuff so we can’t let you into the village.”
“Don’t worry, we won’t steal anything.”

“You won’t steal just because you say so?” he sneered. “Who knows what sort of people you are.”

“I’m a writer, he’s a columnist, he’s a Web site manager ...”

“I don’t care who you are,” Black Corduroy cut me off. “When I say you can’t go in, you can’t go in.”

Stalemate. I pulled a wad of cash out of my pocket. “If you’re worried we’ll steal something, hold onto this for security,” I said.

“Put your money away.”

The standoff continued for a quarter of an hour. We didn’t want to retreat.

Meanwhile, several villagers passed by, unconcerned, as if nothing unusual was happening. Some even stopped to chat with Black Corduroy.

The Internet is full of rumors about Chen. Some say that the government has dispatched 1,200 people to guard him day and night, that there are several layers of checkpoints around the village, that the annual budget for guarding him is $7.8 million. Some people even speculate that Chen is dead and that the government keeps the surveillance program alive to continue reaping money.

I sat on the ground. “If you don’t let me into the village, I’ll sit here and I won’t leave until I see Chen Guangcheng,” I declared to Black Corduroy.

The men flagged down a passing bus and tried to force us onto it. We resisted. In the melee, Black Corduroy threw a few punches at me. Our attempts to resist were useless. We ended up in the bus.

“Just wait,” I proclaimed. “I’ll be right back.” Black Corduroy ignored me and shouted at the driver, “Close the door. Go!”

The driver and the conductor seemed to be accustomed to such scenes. We tried to explain that we were visiting a friend, a blind man called Chen Guangcheng. “Do you know him?”

“Heard of him,” a passenger on the bus said. “He was in jail.”

“Jailbird?” mumbled a middle-aged woman next to me. “Sounds like scum to me.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I noticed my hand was bleeding and it hurt.

Two cars followed us. One was a black Buick without license plates. After about 10 kilometers we got off the bus and the black car continued to follow at a distance of about 30 or 40 meters.

We decided to walk back to Dongshigu. After a few hundred meters a van careened toward us. A tall man led the charge out of the van. Six men followed him. He wore a black T-shirt that half hid a crescent-shaped tattoo on his chest. He grabbed me by the throat as another twisted one of my arms behind my back.

“What is your authority? Will you listen to reason?” I asked.

“This is our territory, we don’t need to reason with you.”

“Who’s in charge here? Can we talk?”

No answer.

“We are citizens of the P.R.C., and without a court order, no one can infringe upon our personal freedoms.” That was the lawyer in me talking.

“Law? We don’t need the stinking law.”

Another bus arrived and they forced us on to it with a good deal of shoving and punching. A young girl came out of a shop and watched the scene in astonishment, huddled up in fear.

Later, upon reflection, I concluded that the thugs were not bad people. Perhaps they simply believe in things they should not believe in; their superiors tell them that Chen Guangcheng is a traitor, so they feel hatred toward his supporters. But the thugs are not good people either: They take $250 a month for doing nothing but beating people up.

These people suffer from a sort of moral deficiency. They don’t care about what is right or wrong. Their only concern is for the tiny space in front of their eyes. They are not evil monsters, but under certain circumstances they become the accomplices of evil. To be an accomplice of evil is serious.

A Chinese scholar once said that China comprises three kinds of people: the liars, the deaf and the mute. He neglected a fourth category: the accomplices.

In an abnormal society, accomplices are innumerable and none of them needs to shoulder responsibility, so they feel no remorse. Later, they can and will say that they were manipulated, that they too were victims. That may be true, but crimes are committed with their assistance.

These events prove that in an abnormal era, in an abnormal place like China, there is a price to pay for doing normal things. But there shouldn’t be a price to pay for doing normal things. I believe I have the right to live a normal life — free of fear, free to visit whomever I please. This is one of the most basic expectations of a human being. Yet, at certain times, in certain places, this expectation is but a dream.

Four days after the incident our group got together in Beijing. We ate, drank coffee and chatted. We had returned to our normal lives, though we could not forget that Chen Guangcheng was still in Dongshigu, still suffering.

I am not a brave person. I’m writing this account to support the many Chen Guangchengs of this world in the small way I can.

I have seen a photograph of Chen in which he is standing at the threshold of his home dressed in an old suit, his head held high as if he has faith in the future. There is a bright smile on his face.

I looked at that photo several times while writing this account, wondering how he could have such a radiant smile while suffering so much. I realized this is what separates brave people from ordinary folk: Like everyone else, he too is scared of hardship, he too feels terror, just as much as anyone else. But he embraces hope, and believes that the world will become a better place, that this abnormal era will one day end.

China has a long way to go before it becomes a better place. The road will be bumpy. If someone has to suffer for the cause, I am willing to be that person. If someone has to pay a price for that cause, I am willing to be that person. If my suffering can prevent others from suffering, then I am willing to sacrifice my life. I am willing to give up everything.

I hope that in the not-too-distant future I will be able to sit down with Chen Guangcheng and make a toast to our dream of living a normal life.
MurBy ong Xuecun, the pen name of Hao Qun, is one of China’s early Internet writers, best known for the novel “Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu.” This article was translated from the Chinese by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz.

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