Five times a week, under the guidance of an English tutor at New York University’s law school, Chen has been using the Declaration of Independence as a makeshift textbook. The 236-year-old document can make for difficult reading, but for a man who spent most of the past decade imprisoned in China while fighting for the rights of his fellow villagers, it resonates deeply. And so he persists, breaking down the syllables into manageable parts.
English, Chen explained in a rare interview Monday, is the key to his new life in America — to making himself understood, to maintaining relevance abroad as a Chinese activist, and to understanding the lessons the U.S. legal system holds for China.
“China is on a march toward rule of law and democracy,” he said in Mandarin, “and when that time comes, concepts like this will play a vital role.”
It has been a month since the end of the remarkable saga that brought the blind activist and his family to the United States. A series of intense and protracted negotiations between American and Chinese diplomats ended with a deal allowing Chen to leave China to study abroad.
Today, the 40-year-old self-taught lawyer and his family are still adjusting to the change — from being confined to the bare-walled room where they were watched by authorities in rural Shangdong province to a new three-bedroom apartment in bustling Lower Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, supported by tutors, law professors, PR managers, interpreters and security personnel.
The international spotlight on them has faded, but its glare is still felt in the form of entreaties from agents, politicians, reporters and activist groups. Chen and his wife have received calls from the well-meaning (disability groups wanted to give him a guide dog, Chinese American Christians offered their vacation homes) and from those with less altruistic aims (Hollywood producers are pushing to buy the movie rights to his story and a raft of TV news producers are vying to book him).
Chen has turned down or taken a rain check on almost all requests so that he can focus on two things: his studies and the safety of extended family members in China, who he fears could be the targets of retribution from authorities.
Some assumed his plans to study abroad were merely a cover for him to leave China. But Chen has embraced the opportunity with the same stubborn persistence that transformed him from a blind peasant in a system in which the disabled are largely marginalized into an internationally recognized activist.
His wife, Yuan Weijing, who learned some English in China, has joined him in the daily two-hour English-language tutorials he takes, as well as law classes that began last week.