My meeting with Chen Guangcheng in New York

One of the highlights of my New York visit was the meeting with Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer who has escaped the house arrest in his home village in Shandong and made his way to US. He is now a fellow at New York University.

A few days after my arrival, I wrote to Chen’s PR, requesting for an audience – as an old friend. Although we have not seen each other for years, I know he has not forgotten about me. When my former boss from Newsweek Melinda Liu followed him to New York in May, the first question he fired was: “Where is Lijia?” The PR guy wrote back soon with a promise of passing on the message. A few hours later, my phone ran. It was him.

The following day, I went to NYU’s law department to meet him, as instructed. At Washington Square, I stopped, trying to work out where I was. A black man with a chess board in front of him (there were half a dozen chess players camped in the square, their way to make money,) called out to me: “Beautiful lady, come to play chess with me.” I said I came to meet with a Chinese friend at the law department. He grinned: “I know, you came to see the blind guy. He is in the Wilf Hall right over there!” The chess man’s comment gave a hint what a big deal Chen has become in US. Later on, I learnt that people regarded Chen the best known Chinese in US.

Inside Wilf Hall, I was ushered into a small conference room. In a minute, Chen turned up, without his crutch, followed by his wife Yuan Weijing. I rushed up to give him a hug. “Old friend, finally!” he smiled broadly. Compared to our last meeting – that was more than ten years ago, his face was a little rounder and his hair peppered with white. But he looked well.

“Do you remember where we met last time?” he asked me.

I couldn’t remember.

“At a party in your house. Your daughter was singing a song about rabbit.” I have to admit that I didn’t remember that detail either but I trust him because he got an incredible memory (I was going to say photographic memory, and then remembered his blindness.) He said ever since his arrival in New York, he has been trying to get in touch with old friends, one of them the British diplomat who introduced us back in 2000. “How?” “By telephoning her. I know her number,” he stated matter-of-factly. Wow, that was 12 years ago. He smiled and pointed at his head. “It remembers lots of things.”

Chen never fails to surprise me. When I told him that although we have not seen each other, I’ve been following his movement, he replied: “I’ve been following you, too. Even I was in jail, I’ve heard you about your memoir. Socialism is Great, right?” My eyes widened. How? A smiled blossomed on his face. “I told you that there are only things you dare not thing about. Nothing can’t be done.” He then summarized the book for his wife.

Turning to her, he said:“I’ve always told you that meeting Lijia was the turning point in my life.” He said I dared to think, dare to act and I wasn’t frightened of anything. I felt extremely flattered by his comment. I think my articles had helped to introduce him to the western media and expanded his contact with the outside world. “It was you who introduced the idea of NGO to me,” he said at one point.

Chen seems to have well-settled. His foot is healing well. Every day, he comes to NYU to take English lessons, together with his wife. When I asked who is doing better, Yuan said: “My English is probably better but he is picking it up faster.” And every day, he studies constitutional law, a course designed just for him. He added that the US government has invested a lot on him and he was grateful. Their children, aged six and nine go to the local school and are enjoying themselves. “This is heaven for children who have been treated like prisoners since they were born.” They live in a flat ten minutes walk and mostly they buy food and his wife cooks Chinese dishes. He said he has tried western food but simply can’t stand cheese. He does love Asian cuisines such as Thai and Indian.

I told him what I’ve been up in the US for the past week and I talked our plan to spend the weekend in Shelter Island outside New York. I said if I could drive, I’d love to take them to the beautiful countryside in the outskirts. He said: “No worries, if we need to go anywhere, we got a car.” Who was to drive? “Our body guide.” Wow!

Chen asked me what kinds of advice I would give him. I said probably not granting too many interviews to journalists. “If I were you,” I said, “I’d take this opportunity to study law and to get to know American society.” Another important thing, I said, was to be mindful of the tricky American politics, avoiding to used by American politicians, especially the Republican. In fact, I was very impressed with the way he has carried himself in the US. I know all sorts people, politicians, Falungongers, anti-abortion people and of course, the old generation of dissidents, have all tried to court him and he has stayed cool. I am sure that his mentor Jerry Cohen, a renowned law professor from NYU, has given him plenty of sensible suggestions.

He revealed his plan of writing his own memoir – in Chinese and then to be translated into English. He has been meeting agents and publishers. He asked for my advice on publishing. I said: “Make sure you understand the contract before singing it.” I am very excited for him about the project as he has such an inspiring story to tell and now he also has millions keen to hear his story.

I asked him if he thinks he would be allowed to return to China. “I will,” he said confidently, then adding: “That day will not be long.” He predicted that positive and dramatic changes will take place, citing the protests and demonstrations that are occurring frequently throughout China. They have also heard about the recent protest in Sichuan over the construction of a chemical plan. “More and more people are awaken,” he said. Personally, I think he is probably too optimistic. To push China forward, however, we certainly need more people like him.

I greatly enjoyed our meeting. You don’t meet such an inspiring man every day.

Before I left, his wife took a photo of us. As we stood together, he patted my head. “You’ve grown taller.” I replied: “Not really. Only fatter.”

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5 thoughts on “My meeting with Chen Guangcheng in New York

  1. Chen Guangcheng is in a good place now. There are pockets of goodness, kindness, and light in America among ordinary citizens, just as there are the same in China or anywhere else. But Mr. Chen has to be mindful and not be too naive to be hoodwinked over any illusion and naivite that his “celebrity” status will last, and that America’s ruling class is clean, honest, and altruistic. America is coping with its own domestic morass… Including the crumbling of its urban cities, blight, drugs, alcoholism, growing joblessness, a fundamental disconnect and widening gap between the rich and the poor, the hollowing of its middle class, the corrosion of basic civility, the meltdown of its education system. Soon, he will hopefully learn more that beneath the veneer of this seeming worship of the West or things Western, and this euphoric and over exuberant good vibes about the “Lao Wai,” 老外, all societies have to cope with its own injustices, it’s grievances, it’s dark “armpit”side, it’s own evil, oppressive “tigers” of government. America is a society of law? Gimme a break. Those of us who have been in the trenches of America’s system of justice know that that there is no such thing. Ultimately, the dispensation of justice is all about man, who makes and interprets, and executes the law. America’s system of justice, Mr. Chen will soon discover, is no better nor worse than China’s. There are moments of lucid intervals, true. But most of the time, the system here just plods along,and is often broken, as corrupt, if not dysfunctional.

    1. Sorry, Edward Liu, but it is all a matter of degree. For all its many faults America remains a free society and a constitutional democracy. We have free speech and a free press. The opportunity for reform is there. It is up to the people to creatively use these advantages to correct the wrongs that exist. It has happened many times in the past and it will happen again.

  2. Lijia,
    Since I now have an precious enchanting 2 year old granddaughter from China, I have wanted to know more about her native country. Reading your blog, as well as many books by Chinese authors, has added to my knowledge of China and her people. The Chinese have such a rich heritage, yet tragic too, as do many societies. I wish it were possible for you to tour all of the US and get a broader view of our country. I have lived in Oklahoma and Texas, as well as the northeast, and I think you would find a different type of atmosphere in the southwestern part of the country as opposed to the northeast. The southwest has more middle class citizens who are friendly, generous,accepting, yet very independent thinkers. Isn’t this true of China as well. The large cities seem so different from the rural areas in the books I have read.

    I, too, have been so interested in Chen Guangcheng and over a year ago put my name on petitions for him. Bob Fu, chinaaid.org has enlightened me about some of the human rights abuses, as has Chai Ling. I am so happy that he and his family have been able to come here, and I think most of the average citizens of this country feel the same way.

    Many blessings to you.

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