MIDLAND, Tex. — One week ago, Bob Fu was an obscure crusader for religious rights in China. His nonprofit group, China Aid, improbably based in this dusty West Texas oil town, followed the plight of persecuted “house churches,” opposed forced sterilizations and abortions, and promoted pen-pal campaigns for pastors in prison.
In the past 72 hours, Fu has become an international media figure at the center of the most sensational human rights crisis in China in a decade. It erupted when blind lawyer and dissident Chen Guangcheng fled house arrest and took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing — just as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was arriving this week for critical and wide-ranging talks with Chinese officials.
Fu, who helped engineer Chen’s escape and describes himself as Chen’s “ambassador,” has since been besieged with media calls, rumors and tips in half a dozen languages. At 6 a.m. Wednesday, American officials called Fu from Beijing to inform him that Chen had made a deal with Chinese authorities — a deal that appeared to quickly unravel. Now, Fu is rushing to Washington to testify on Capitol Hill about Chen’s unfolding case.
“Bob is our hero, but before this we were mostly below the radar. Now everyone in the world is trying to reach him,” said Celia Harris, the white-haired secretary at China Aid. Like many local supporters, she is a member of the large Christian community church in Midland that helped Fu settle when he fled China in 1997. He is now a pastor there as well as the founder and director of China Aid.
Fu, a scholar and activist who grew up in communist-ruled China, said he found God after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Disillusioned by the crackdown, he said he was full of hatred and despair until he read a book smuggled into China by a Christian teacher. He began teaching in secret Bible schools and was arrested by the secret police in 1996. A year later, he escaped from his apartment and fled to the United States with his wife, partly to save her from a forced abortion after she failed to receive a pregnancy permit at her workplace.
Fu was born in the same rural province as Chen, who is not Christian but who has long been a passionate and outspoken opponent of Beijing’s policy of forced sterilizations and abortions. The issue is at the heart of U.S. religious groups’ criticism of China.
“I always felt a natural connection with Chen,” said Fu, speaking in short snatches between a barrage of phone calls late Tuesday. The queries intensified as midnight approached and rumors swirled across the Internet that Chen was about to make a deal. “I chose a peaceful life in the United States, but he believed the system in China could change, and he wanted to stay and be part of it, even after suffering so much. He believes that a million ants can move a hill. He is a symbol of courage for all of us.”
Far from being an armchair activist in his remote Texas outpost, Fu is intimately engaged in human rights work in China. He helped organize a group of volunteers who formed an underground railroad to spirit Chen 300 miles from his farmhouse to the U.S. Embassy last week, and he stays in constant touch with a close network of activists, though he declined to describe all their methods of communication.
On Wednesday morning, when U.S. officials announced that negotiations with Chen were complete, Fu was immediately skeptical. Friends in China kept tweeting and texting with reports that Chen and his family were missing, under threat, or being starved in a hospital. Fu, working at a conference table with his laptop and three cellphones, kept up a drumbeat of radio and press interviews. Over and over, he expressed fears for Chen’s safety and denounced the deal as hastily concocted to smooth over the U.S.-China talks. “They wanted to clear the clouds before the beautiful banquet,” he said.
Fu founded China Aid 10 years ago, and it has offices in Washington and Los Angeles, but he decided to set up its headquarters in Midland, a small city surrounded by oil wells, cattle ranches and flat hard prairie as far as the eye can see. There are fewer than 100 Chinese-born residents there but numerous Christian churches whose members give generously to his cause. In his office are portraits of former president George W. Bush, who once lived here, posing with Chinese exiles.
“This is the Bible Belt,” Fu said of the community that welcomed his family a decade ago. “Midlanders are bighearted, and they care about freedom.”
One local supporter, a burly lawyer named Dan Dane, came by Fu’s office Wednesday to express concern about Chen. He chuckled as he described the excitement of baptizing Chinese refugees in his swimming pool.
“We’re not just about Friday night football and oil wealth. People here have vision, too,” he said.
Despite Fu’s longtime religious convictions and new high-profile role in promoting Chen’s cause, his analysis of developments in China is complex and nuanced. While skeptical of the argument made by some U.S. experts that engaging China will eventually lead to political and social reforms, he acknowledged that its leadership is changing and that, on paper at least, it has enshrined democratic laws and principles.
However, Fu is deeply suspicious of Chinese authorities, describing them as cagey in their dealings with the West and ruthless in their suppression of embarrassing dissidents such Chen.
“They have made many promises, but you know they can change the moment the Americans leave,” he said.