Around Town with Chen Guangcheng, the sequel

By Yaxue Cao

Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a post titled Around Town with Chen Guangcheng, in which I recounted my lone protest in Washington, DC, on Valentine’s Day, 2012. That day Xi Jinping was meeting with president Obama in White House, and various groups—Tibetans, Uighurs, Falungong practitioners, overseas dissident groups—converged in Lafayette Park and on the sidewalks of 17th street to protest. I didn’t belong to any group; I walked among them, and then off by myself, carrying a Chen Guangcheng sign I made the night before. I took pictures of the sign against the backdrop of the White House as well as the Washington Monument, next to a bicycle and on a bench. I was filled with love and sadness, love for the man who, as Wang Keqin (王克勤) had felt, was “a messenger of God,” and sad that there was no prospect for his freedom and that he could perish any day.

I didn’t foresee a sequel like this one.

Since Chen Guangcheng was in the US, I have not attempted to contact him: he is busy, he is taken good care of, and I can’t think of anything to contribute anymore. But late last year after his nephew Chen Kegui was sentenced, he contacted me through a friend. Last Monday he and his family arrived in DC to receive 2012 Lantos Human Rights Prize, and I was asked to help with the interpretation.

Monday morning we met in his hotel lobby. We had a big bear hug. I had said it several times already in my emails, but again it was the first thing that jumped out of my mouth: “Guangcheng! I still can’t believe this is real!”

“It is real, Yaxue jie (雅学姐, older sister)! Many more things will come true!” He exclaimed. I can’t blame him for being so upbeat. After all, he is a blind man who scaled many walls and crossed many ditches in a pitch-black night, and made an improbable escape while under heavy guard by scores of thugs.

He was not as tall as I thought, only a few inches taller than I am. Not as strong as one might imagine either. He speaks decent Mandarin with a little Shandong accent, and his voice has a nice boom to it.

An event was cancelled that morning due to federal government’s weather-related closing. It turned out that he badly needed that few extra hours to finish his speech for Tuesday. Before he came to DC, I had asked him if he had a speech written that I could take a look first, and he replied that he never “wrote” speeches—he just speaks. For the Lantos award ceremony though, he found out he did need to write a speech because of the way it would be delivered. He had worked on an earlier draft, and he said he got up at four o’clock that morning to expand it.

For much of the morning, I watched he and Weijing, his wife, working on his speech, he on his Braille typer, Weijing on a Mac. When he was done, he asked about my opinion of his speech. When I told him it was a well written, powerful speech, he half-joked, “I don’t want the CCP people think I write poorly.” I broke out laughing, “You must be kidding! The CCP officials have trouble just to talk like normal human beings!”

CGC at work

In the afternoon, after an interview with the AP, we went to Capitol Hill to have a walk-through for the next day. There in a new auditorium, we watched two short videos to be played during the ceremony. The second one was about him, his story told in ten brief minutes. Afterwards, the video man told us how hard it was to find free photos of Chen Guangcheng, and how everyone wanted to charge $400 apiece. But he said he was happy to pay for the music, played by some musicians in New York City, for he liked it a lot and felt it had “energy” in it. Then he asked how Guangcheng felt about the video. Guangcheng made a rumbling sound as though he was about to sob. At that moment I realized that, while I barely registered the music, for him it was all about the sound. Only then did it come to me that the music was The Moon Reflected on Er-quan Spring, a traditional Erhu classic composed, and originally played, by a blind musician.

That night a dinner party was held in the hotel in his honor. I accompanied him through the dazzling crowd of ladies and gentlemen, translating “I’m honored….” and “you are my hero” hundreds of times back and forth. I don’t know about Guangcheng; I really couldn’t take any sort of reception for more than ten minutes without wishing to run away. As I write just now, I remind myself that, for Guangcheng, it was mostly just sound. And as sound goes—in a foreign language at that, what a chaos it must be!

Tuesday was a gorgeous, sunny day, 70 degrees, just about the most beautiful day this winter here in DC. Behind a podium on the left of the stage, over-looking a packed auditorium where probably half of the Congress was attending, Chen Guangcheng delivered his acceptance speech, reading from his Braille typer. He read slowly and evenly, paragraph by paragraph, alternating with Richard Gere, who, behind another podium on the right, read the English translation that Guangcheng’s assistant and I prepared the day before.

At home that night, as I tweeted portions of his speech in Chinese, it struck me how extraordinary the scene must have been: In a hushed auditorium filled with suited people, a blind man, standing in the spotlight, read the following in a firm and perfectly composed voice:

“We must be clear: dictatorships are inherently in opposition to democracy and freedom. They are opposed to constitutionalism and the rule of law, and will monopolize all power for their own benefit. They can ravage you at will; if you resist, they will make you a criminal. If you protest, they will make you their enemy. This system starkly and inherently contradicts democratic institutions. If you approach them with dialogue and reason in the hope that they will give up some of their authoritarian power, you will in effect become an accomplice to their work.” (here for more)

It was mesmerizing, as several people had told me after the ceremony. I didn’t sit in the audience, but I could very well imagine.

Weijing couldn’t be happier that day. “I received so much praise from so many people!” I would not be doing a good report if I neglected to tell you that, when Guangcheng delivered his speech, he didn’t do so alone. Weijing was standing next to him, and in nearly everything he does, Weijing is right next to him. Weijing is his eyes.

Over lunch in the concordance of the National Gallery of Art, I asked Guangcheng how his book was going. It was going fine, he told me and he planned to finish it soon. “Did you tell about your childhood?” “I did, I did,” he said. “Please do,” I said, “tell readers all about your naughtiness and ingenuity as a little boy. It is a preview of your future.” I told him how I relished, when I researched to write a profile of him in 2011, the tidbits of his childhood anecdotes I found in writings about him by lawyers and journalists who worked with him in 2005-2006. He laughed, shaking head, “I was so naughty, oh gosh, so incredibly naughty.”

Guangcheng and me in DC on Jan. 29, 2013.

Guangcheng and me in DC on Jan. 29, 2013.

Wednesday morning, Guangcheng was interviewed by Ray Suarez of PBS News Hour. I enjoyed interpreting for him, simply because it was such a nice ride on Guangcheng’s straightforward, boyish optimism:

RAY SUAREZ: How? How can the people change the future, when their lives are so thoroughly controlled?

CHEN GUANGCHENG: Again, where there is oppression, there’s resistance. And they spent — they invested tons and tons of money and human resources to control. On myself alone, they have spent 70, 80 millions and a thousand of people. And what happened? I’m here. I’m sitting right here.

After the interview, Ray Suarez went on chatting with Guangcheng for a while. When he learned where Guangcheng lived in Manhattan, he commented that it was the holy land of American rebellion. “Perhap you will be remembered along with Bob Dylan,” Ray Suarez said. I added that it was also the area where Ai Weiwei lived in the 1980s.

Shifting perspective just a little, it’s amazing how events could have panned out the way they have by no one’s design, for, as I tweeted before, “In China, there are plenty of people who think more deeply than Chen Guangcheng, who have fought just as courageously, or who have suffered just as badly, if not worse. But as a blind man living in the most impoverished countryside, Chen Guangcheng represents the ultimate impossibility. When we look back one day, we will see that Cheng Guangcheng’s struggle and the free CGC movement was an important milestone in the history of Chinese popular resistance against the Communist rule. For now, he remains one of our best sources of inspiration.”

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