Conflict & Justice

Telling the Story of Chen Guangcheng's Escape

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Free Chen Guangcheng artwork used on Twitter

The case of Chen Guangcheng is getting a lot of play in the West. His story is remarkable, but we wondered whether or not it might be his image that's capturing attention.

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Chen's story is like something out of Hollywood. Just ask Steven Colbert, who this week called Chen "a total bad ass."

"This dissident was guarded by 90 to 100 police. So he feigned illness, lulling his guards into complacency. Then he slipped out of the house in darkness, and scaled a wall, injuring his foot, jumping to the ground but still managed to cross a river, then rendezvoused with friends who drove him more than 300 miles to the capital Beijing… and, he's blind," Colbert said.

Susan Moeller, who heads the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland says "the Chinese activist community is incredibly savvy about how the world's media works."

She said, as Colbert suggested, that Chen's story resonates with an American public raised on Mission Impossible and other action flicks. And she believes that Chinese activists know how to appeal to that sensibility.

"They've learned at least since Tienanmen Square what the world pays attend to," Moeller said. "And I find it hard to believe that there wasn't some intentionality is Mr. Chen coming to the fore. He's got a great back story."

Moeller said there are lots of moments in history when a man or woman who didn't necessarily have the most obvious credentials as a revolutionary became an instant media hero.

Take Wael Ghonim.

The Google executive rose to prominence during last year's Egyptian revolution, grabbing the limelight from activists who'd spent decades fighting the Mubarak regime.

So, Chen Guangcheng as a potential subject for, say, People Magazine is not that far-fetched.

And, as Steven Colbert said, there always the fact that he's blind.

And, he also always wears cool shades — because he's blind.

And he's kind of good looking.

But Chinese writer Diane Weilang, author of "The Eye of Jade," says there's more even than Chen's personal story.

"His case coupled, I believe, with the Bo Xilai scandal, seems to be somehow a new scenario in China that a lot of these events traditionally had been covered up or been able to be dealt in private are now public knowledge and public, almost a sort of staged event."

There's also the fact that he ran to the American embassy just as Hillary Clinton was arriving in Beijing.

But what could have been an easy, made-for-TV story of a blind dissident escaping and finding refuge with US help is today not so clear cut.

"It's the naiveté part that I really have the hardest time with," Susan Moeller said. "I think frankly there's a lot more of the story to come out."

Why did a man who'd been harassed for years think the Chinese government would let him live a normal life, regardless of what deal was cut with the US?

Why did Chen change his mind about asking for US asylum?

Right now, the once simple tale of a blind Chinese dissident hero isn't so easy to follow.

But perhaps that will make it more interesting.