GQ: Chen Guangcheng: Rebel of the Year 2012

Tuesday, November 27, 2012



Guards routinely stole into Chen Guangcheng's house, wrapped him in a blanket, beat him bloody, broke his wife's bones. The blanket seemed especially gratuitous: Chen is blind. This went on for a year and a half, all because the self-taught lawyer had sued the Chinese government to stop forced abortions in his village. So one dark April night, he left it all behind. He scrambled over the wall of his courtyard, shattering his foot in the fall. Still, he eluded over sixty thugs patrolling his town by hiding in the rank filth of a pigsty. He alerted a team of sympathizers collaborators with coded messages from a smuggled cell phone; they picked him up and began the long drive to Beijing, where Chen shuttled among apartments, never spending two nights in the same place.

After a car chase—a car chase—he wound up at the American embassy, and found himself at the center of a swirling diplomatic drama. An embarrassed China wanted Chen back. A cautious U.S. wanted to play hero without affronting the Chinese. Chen wanted to stay until he didn't, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to step in and broker a deal to get him out of the country. "From the moment I climbed on the plane, I had this feeling—it's hard to articulate clearly, but it was sorrowful," Chen says now. "Of course I want to go back. I will inevitably return to China, standing tall. I don't think China can continue like this forever." In a GQ exclusive, Chen recounts his time as a humanitarian cause célèbre in the United States and adjusting to life in the slow, steady fade of the footlights that had burned so bright and hot in May.


On May 19, Chen Guangcheng landed at Newark Liberty International Airport on United Airlines Flight 88 from Beijing. He was met at the airport by Jerome Cohen, an old friend and co-director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at NYU, who arranged for Chen's arrival in New York.

The plane had this kind of airtight smell, the scent of hermetically sealed space and air conditioning, a smell I really don't like. The seat I sat in was especially high-class; it felt like real leather. The backs of the seats had these consoles where you could watch movies, play games, or listen to music, but I wasn't really in the mood for that.

From the moment I climbed on the plane, I had this feeling—it's hard to articulate clearly, but in general, it was sorrowful. After I got on the plane and had a short nap, I had a chance to think about a lot of things—love for my country, the things that had just happened, and things I would do in America—and in general I felt hurt.

Three American diplomatic officials accompanied me on the plane, two men and a woman. They had come to mind me, I guess because there was still some threat to my safety. A bunch of reporters had gotten on the plane when they found out I was leaving, and these officials would screen them for me, asking me if I wanted to be interviewed and for how long. At one point, an old friend who had planned to meet me on the plane came up and shook my hand. Of course, he asked, "Aren't you happy to be leaving China?" "No, not really," I said.

The moment the plane landed and I was getting up on crutches—I still couldn't walk, remember—all of the other passengers stood up and applauded. I was so moved: even they had never spoken to me, they knew who I was. At the same time, my heart was surging with emotion, filled with a million sighs. All these years, everything I'd been through—I originally hadn't wanted to leave China, but this series of events forced me to, and I couldn't help but feel hurt.

A contingent from NYU had come to meet me at the airport. After a State Department official picked me up in a wheelchair, they wheeled me to the car, and there were a couple awkward attempts to get me in the van. Jerry Cohen was there. We hadn't seen each other in years, so we talked excitedly for a while. But the smell in the car, maybe something about the traffic on the highway, made me really carsick. I had a headache, and I was just waiting to throw up, though I didn't until later that night, at home.

When he arrived at his new apartment at NYU's faculty housing, Chen held an open-air press conference, his first ever.

I knew a lot of people were watching me the moment I stepped out of the van and everyone started cheering. They were applauding, whistling. People who knew me shouted my name. I hadn't really prepared or knew what I was going to say, so I just spoke straight from the heart. I clearly knew that I had to thank all the people that had worked so hard for this result, for me to come to America. I don't know if it was the best I could do, but at least it was honest.

A few minutes after I got to my apartment, lots of friends started bringing me flowers. I love flowers, especially fragrant ones. They brought me roses, China roses—but no jasmine! Jasmine is my favorite, because it blooms continuously, constantly giving people a sense of springtime. The new flowers will bloom as the old ones fall, which is a perfect metaphor for persistence in the tasks we wish to accomplish.

Another friend had sent me some oranges. I usually love to eat them, but I had a piece and was sick, vomiting until one in the morning. I don't think it was related to my emotional state. I really think it was just the smell of the van.

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