NEW YORK — The English lesson begins with a review of vocabulary: “equal,” “truth,” “liberty,” “self-evident.” Then comes the hardest term of all to pronounce: “unalienable rights.”
The words sometimes sound like gibberish to Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese legal activist, but he repeats them dutifully, rolling them around his mouth as if to taste their meaning.
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.
“Can you use ‘truth’ in a sentence?” their English tutor asked at Monday’s session.
“One plus one equals two. This is a truth,” Yuan replied.
“We must . . . pursue . . . truth,” Chen chimed in.
“Very good! Now can you use ‘life’ in a sentence?”
“Life is a ungh-ae-lee-un-ah-boh right,” Chen answers a little more quickly.
“Life,” his wife said, then paused. “Life is the most precious thing.”
Through such interactions, their teachers have pieced together a vivid picture of the life the couple led in China, as well as of Chen’s extraordinary abilities to learn. Blinded as a child by fever in an impoverished village, he did not begin elementary school until the age of 17.
“That he knows all he knows about China and its laws is quite amazing,” said NYU law professor Jerome Cohen. “And he is already grasping eagerly for the American equivalent.”
Cohen — widely considered the foremost expert on Chinese law studies in the United States — has custom-tailored Chen’s legal curriculum. Under the supervision of Cohen and others at NYU, Chen will slowly make his way in the coming weeks from the Declaration of Independence toward constitutional law — a path he sees as fundamental to his objectives.
He is struck by the transition from a declaration of freedom to the birth of a civil society ruled by law, and how China might learn from America’s experience.
For now, Chen is often careful in how he describes China’s current problems. “Caution runs through everything we do,” he said.
Although he often avoids criticizing the Chinese government or its laws, he does fault authorities for not enforcing the law.
He reserves his most passionate criticism for officials overseeing the case of his nephew Chen Kegui, who has been charged with attempted murder after an incident in April in which he stabbed at plainclothes security guards. His defenders argue that he acted in self-defense after the guards broke into his home without warning and beat members of the family.
In his spare time, Chen has begun delicately delving again into the world of activism.
Although he has become most known for his work against forced abortions imposed on rural peasants under China’s one-child policy, he has largely stayed away from politically charged issues related to abortion in the United States. Instead, he said, he is focusing on campaigning for the rights of the disabled in New York.
“How a society treats its disabled is the true measure of a civilization,” he said.
Chen said he hopes to be able to return to China after his studies. It is a theoretical possibility under the terms of his negotiated deal, but one that may depend partly on what he says and how far he goes in his activism while in the United States.
Barely a month into his stay, the prospect of going back to China looms large in his mind. It is why he studies so intently, despite daily frustration with his progress in English and law classes.
He said he believes that change is coming to China and that still-abstract concepts, such as “unalienable rights,” will become a reality. And when they do, he explained, he wants to be there, as a witness and a contributor.
“We are at a point now when anything is possible,” he said in Mandarin. Then, switching to English a little later to drive home the point, he said with a grin, “equal,” “liberty,” “self-evident.”