For two weeks now, the world has been following the story of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng. And in nearly all reports, the phrase "blind activist" is used at least once. Friday, Alan Greenblatt wrote for us about why some say Chen's blindness is just one factor in "a much larger life." Today, NPR's Louisa Lim, who is based in Beijing, tells us why Chen's blindness is "the central fact" of his existence:
From the outside, Chen Guangcheng's blindness may seem simply one factor in a much larger life, but within China, his blindness elevates him to become an inspirational figure, rather than a "sympathetic victim."
Statistics tell the story: there are 16 million blind and visually impaired people in China, according to the official Xinhua news agency. This disclosure comes in an article explaining there are just 28 trained guide-dogs in the whole country.
As for high schools for the blind,China has only 19 such schools, whose entire intake last year was just 1,009 students. (Like some other links in this post, you'll need to use Google translate or a similar application to translate that page into English.)
So only a tiny minority of visually-impaired Chinese ever receive an education. Chen was one of them, receiving four years of education at Qingdao High School for the Blind. But that did not change his future, and he — like many other blind Chinese — ended up training to become an acupuncturist and masseur. This is the default occupation for blind Chinese, with 14,067 blind masseurs receiving training last year.
"I never wanted to be a masseur," a 35-year old visually impaired masseur, Mr. Guo, tells us. "I wanted to study hard and get high marks at school. But then my sight began to fail, and my father suggested this as a job." Of his blind friends and acquaintances, he says the vast majority are masseurs, with many on duty for 15 hours a day. "I have to tell you, it's a very very hard life, being a blind masseur in China," Guo says. "The work hours are very long. There are no holidays, and on public holidays, we are extremely busy."
So it is really the central fact of Chen Guangcheng's existence — and testament to his strength of character — that he managed to study law, despite being blind and while working as a masseur. Supporting others with disabilities was clearly important to him, since his first successful legal challenge was against the local government's taxation of disabled people in contravention of the law. Then he angered local authorities, by helping villagers sue family planning officials in Linyi,Shandong, for forcing women to have abortions and sterilizations.
In 2006, he was given a four-year jail sentence for allegedly damaging public property and organizing an illegal assembly which stopped traffic. On his release from jail, he was put under house arrest, despite the absence of any outstanding charges, and for the next 19 months he was kept a prisoner in his own home, sometimes brutally beaten.
For Chen's devoted core of supporters, his tireless work for others, despite his own disability, is inspirational. And the persecution by the local authorities has served to multiply outrage and rally support. This much is clear when talking to He Peirong, also known as Pearl Her, who was instrumental in Chen's escape from house arrest, taking enormous risks to drive him to Beijing, even though she had never even met him before.
When asked why, she talks about her first attempt to visit him in January 2011, when her car was smashed by his guards, "It was extremely terrifying," she says. "I felt it was so terrible for such a blind person, to be living in such a village. The risk I was taking was just temporary. After I came back to Nanjing, I felt safe. But for a blind person to be living in such an environment, I thought he needed more help."
China's official press has also emphasized Chen's blindness, in an attempt to undermine him. One opinion piece in a state-run newspaper refers to him repeatedly as "the blind masseur" and "the blind peasant masseur," without a single reference to his legal activism.
Another piece, in the Global Times, also singles out his physical condition, in arguing that he has been used as a political tool of the U.S.: "As a disabled man, Chen hasn't received a higher education. He has a very unusual way to deal with his conflicts in rural society. You can say this is paranoid or impulsive."
The piece is illustrated by a cartoon of a blind man with a white stick walking into a black hole. Such offensive commentary from state-run newspapers is just one small indication of the widespread discrimination against those with disabilities in China today.
Yet, for many internet users, Chen's blindness gave his escape from the all-seeing eyes of the state an almost allegorical significance. After it became public, artist Ai Weiwei tweeted a remark made by a friend about Chen Guangcheng: "You know he's blind, so the night to him is nothing. I think that's the perfect metaphor."
And another netizen obliquely dodged censorship by posting a line from a contemporary poet Gu Cheng:
"The dark night gave me black eyes, but I used them to find the light."