Braille Monitor                                                 July 2012

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Blindness Reframed on a Global Stage:Peering into the Hidden World of Chen Guangcheng

by Kane Brolin

Kane BrolinFrom the Editor: Kane Brolin is a self-employed Certified Financial Planner™ practitioner who lives and works in Mishawaka, Indiana, with his wife Danika and their two foster children. He is an at-large member of the NFB of Indiana. He hopes to organize an NFB chapter in South Bend. In 2008 he was part of a team that received a Dr. Jacob Bolotin award for developing, testing, and marketing AdapTap, a tactile lane-navigation system for blind competitive swimmers. The project was sponsored and partly underwritten by the University of Notre Dame. In addition to the CFP designation, Kane holds a master’s degree in management from the JL Kellogg School at Northwestern University.

This past spring reporters and consumers of international news sat poised on the edge of their seats wondering what would come next in the saga of Chen Guangcheng, a human rights activist and self-taught legal expert who risked his life fleeing confinement in the People’s Republic of China and who eventually won asylum in the United States. Those who covered Chen’s case often took note generally that he was blind. But they mentioned nothing about the living conditions of blind people in China, nor did they ever make any reference to whether this man interacted with or helped other Chinese blind individuals. These omissions aroused my curiosity so much that I decided to make some inquiries. What I found out—and what seems never to have been mentioned in the press—is that the highly celebrated flight he took to the United States on May 19, 2012, was not Chen Guangcheng’s first trip to this country. I’ve also discovered that, long before Chen’s case evolved into a short-term diplomatic crisis, he had already expressed interest in the organized blind movement and had made contact with the National Federation of the Blind. This article is my modest attempt to lend another perspective on the saga of Chen Guangcheng, which might still be much closer to the beginning than the end.

First I would like to give you some background on my own experience to illustrate why this Chinese dissident’s story resonated with me so strongly. I’ve always believed that many of the most important lessons learned through a college or university experience happen outside the classroom. At least this has been true for me. Raised in a mid-sized Midwestern city with well-educated, positive-minded parents and lots of access to Braille and recorded materials, I never thought myself sheltered, even though I had been totally blind all my life due to retinopathy of prematurity. But after entering Iowa State University, I gradually stretched my wings, broadened my horizons, and came to the realization that I had still seen almost nothing of the real world. Maybe it is this realization that led me to live in an international dorm in 1987, the last year of my undergraduate career, so I could meet and interact with men and women from far-away places who could tell and show me things I’d not yet experienced.

What I didn’t realize is that, in choosing to move to those surroundings, I was also opening new vistas for the foreign students who lived around me. The more I talked with my Chinese roommate Ming and his friends, the more I realized they were as curious about me as I was about them. I soon learned this was because, even though they were from free areas of Greater China such as Hong Kong and Singapore, they had never seen a blind person doing anything out in the larger world: walking with a cane, reading independently using Braille, taking classes and tests, working a part-time job, trying to get a full-time job, and presuming I would land one. Sometimes I asked these folks, “What do blind people do in your country? How do they live? How can they learn to read in a totally different linguistic system?”

I could feel the wide-eyed stares they gave me in response. “We don’t know!” they would exclaim wonderingly. “We’ve never seen a blind person before. We must have some, but … you never see them.”

When mainstream news outlets started to give airtime and space to a Chinese dissident activist named Chen Guangcheng and his opposition to governmental policy in the People’s Republic of China, I at first barely gave it a thought. While a scant amount of background material about him was present online, most of this seemed to focus on his passion to fight against the violent enforcement of China’s one-child-per-family population control policy. The New York Times did report on February 17, 2012, that “Mr. Chen is confined to his home twenty-four hours a day by security agents and hired peasant men armed with sticks, bricks, and walkie-talkies. Visitors who try to see him are physically repulsed and sometimes beaten. Blinding floodlights illuminate his stone farmhouse at night.” Chilling as this was, I could not relate strongly to this image of house arrest or to this man’s predicament and was unaware of his back story. More or less I dismissed Chen’s condition as just the unfortunate product of a struggle specific to Chinese internal policy. But then, as reports began to surface of his daring escape into sanctuary at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, it came to my attention that Chen Guangcheng was blind. I anticipated some official commentary from the organized blind movement, but I heard none. I wondered what I was missing. I assumed that others already knew facts I did not, since the community where I live and work does not as yet contain a chapter of the NFB. As I thought back to my experience in that international dorm, some questions about who Chen Guangcheng is and how he achieved what he did gnawed at my mind:

Finding direct answers to these questions in the press remains next to impossible as I write this. But I did manage to find some clues. Wikipedia reports in its entry on Chen that he was born in 1971 and that he comes from Yinan County, part of Shandong Province. This county’s population, estimated at 896,467, counts for less than one tenth of one percent of China’s overall population as reported in 2010 by The World Bank. To be sure, the fact that Chen Guangcheng has risen to world prominence as a blind man out of such a seemingly insignificant rural environment is remarkable. But the media’s frequent characterization of Chen as a lawyer is incorrect at this time. Wikipedia cites his formal education, in fact, as having been attained at Nanjing University Medical School. In an article published in on May 2, 2012, Isaac Fish Stone points out that Chen received training in massage and acupuncture, not unusual skills for blind people to learn in China.

Since 2005 most of Chen Guangcheng’s international attention has centered on his efforts to stop forced abortions and sterilizations that he alleged were being carried out in certain localities of China in a brutal enforcement of his country’s one-child-per-family policy. But in that same article, Mr. Fish points out something not emphasized elsewhere: “His first legal success came when he petitioned for and received a tax refund that his parents shouldn’t have had to pay because of his disability.” Does this point to an openness Chen might have toward advocating for the rights of the blind or for those who have other challenging physical characteristics?

While making some online inquiries about this activist to a blindness-oriented mailing list in early May 2012, I unearthed an unexpected answer. I was told that the sitting president of the Inland Empire Chapter of the NFB, serving the eastern half of Washington State, had some inside information about Chen Guangcheng. And there was more: she had hosted him in her Spokane, Washington, home earlier in this decade on a mysterious visit Chen made to the United States—a visit that has never received any official publicity that I could ever find. I was hooked.

When I connected over the phone with Maria Bradford on May 7 of this year, I had no idea what to expect. I found that she was a down-to-earth, unassuming lady who seemed well informed about the world but who had never thought to advertise that Chinese dissident activist Chen Guangcheng had come to her home sometime around 2005 or 2006. He was not alone but was accompanied by a number of handlers who helped to translate the conversation she had with him (and, presumably, who controlled the length and depth of that conversation). Maria reports that she did not know who the others who accompanied Chen were, except for an Eastern Washington University professor named Dr. Lee, whom she hasn’t been able to locate since.

What Happened?

“They stayed in my home for about forty minutes,” Maria says. “Chen told me he was on a short tour of the West Coast of the United States, that he and his friends were staying in the Pacific Northwest for about a week, and that they would be going to San Francisco for a week.” He wanted to know something about the organized blind movement, he said. According to Maria, Chen asked to see a sample of English Braille, which she made for him using a slate and stylus. Chen showed off a slate and stylus of his own, producing a bit of Braille for her and handing it to her to keep. “I don’t know what this Braille represented,” she said. “It certainly didn’t resemble English Braille, but it was definitely Braille.”

After their brief encounter, Maria says, her visitors disappeared as quietly as they had come. Chen had left an e-mail address, but since then Maria says she has been unable to get a response to any messages sent to it. What was Chen Guangcheng doing in the United States? Under whose sponsorship had he come? How had he been granted permission to come? Of all the places he could have come, why Spokane and not Seattle or Portland? None of the answers has yet been revealed to her.

So what impression of his character did Chen leave with Maria? “Well,” she said after a slight pause, “I could tell that his struggle—whatever it was—had already gone far beyond what any of us here in the blind community of this country have ever known. I knew somehow that this was a man who had stared death in the face and whose life had forever been defined by this.” Did she feel he would welcome being part of the organized blind in the West in the event he emigrates here? “I don’t know,” Maria said. “I would like to think so. But I also think it’s likely that Chen knows he may still be a marked man. I would not be at all surprised if he makes a very quiet entrance, gets his feet on the ground in the Chinese-American community, and shies away from involvement in anything else—for a while.”

Since my conversation with Maria Bradford, more news has trickled in. The Brian Lehrer Show On WNYC Radio reported on May 22 that Chen Guangcheng arrived at New York University (NYU), where he is beginning the formal study of law. Yet how long he will stay in the United States, what he will do here, and how he will position himself among other blind people still constitute an unsolved mystery. But perhaps even before the mystery is solved, we in the National Federation of the Blind can take into our own hearts a little bit of Chen Guangcheng’s courage under fire. What we do know is that this man, on pain of death, has refused to be confined—either by the stereotypes of his own culture or by the guards who threatened and surrounded his family home in Shandong Province and the hospital bed where he was later treated in Beijing. Irrespective of whether he ever self-identifies as an NFB member or even comes to a convention, we can say beyond a doubt that he has painted a stirring picture for the world and changed what it means to be blind in the eyes of many who, like my old roommate Ming and his friends, might not ever have met a blind person or cracked open an issue of the Braille Monitor.

Welcome to you and your family, Chen Guangcheng. May your stay in America be productive, happy, and safe. May it serve as a heartening example to us all.

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