Episode 3: A Dissident Is Born | Crooked Media
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January 20, 2024
Dissident At The Doorstep
Episode 3: A Dissident Is Born

In This Episode

Guangcheng is kidnapped by Chinese authorities and thrown in jail. By keeping him under lock and key, the government hopes to take away his power. But his imprisonment transforms him into a cause and a symbol of dissent in China and across the world. Then after years of detention, Guangcheng decides to try to make an escape. But how and who can he turn to?




Yangyang Cheng: When we last left Guangcheng. It was September of 2005 and he was kidnaped in plain sight in Beijing. He was driven back to Shandong and held under house arrest for a few months, then taken away by security forces again for 89 days. Even his family did not know where he was. Authorities kept him at various black jail sites, first at a hotel and then a police training facility. In June of 2006, Guangcheng was formally transferred to a Yunnan detention center. The jail cell was tiny, he recalls, about four and half meters long. Less than three meters wide. Detainees took turns sleeping because there wasn’t enough space for everyone to lie down at the same time. Six other detainees were assigned to watch him 24 hours a day taking shifts. They would not speak to him. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] At the detention center. Basically, all of them were ordered to not tell me anything. Otherwise they will be given additional sentences. Who wants a longer sentence when they’re in prison? So no one dare to say much to me. Usually not even a word. 


Yangyang Cheng: But months into his time at the detention center. He says someone dared to tell him about a notice. It was posted on the wall just two meters outside their window. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] The notice was the regulations of the People’s Republic of China on detention. And it stated that those who had one of the following conditions should not be detained. First blind people and second pregnant people. So this was very, very ridiculous. 


Yangyang Cheng: It was like a scene out of a Kafka story. Guangcheng made sure to commit to memory the details of his surroundings, feeling everything down to the pipes and screws in the bathroom. If there might be a chance later to testify against his jailers for holding him illegally, he wanted to have some proof that he had been there. He had not even been charged with a crime yet. But soon the official charges came and the absurdity continued. Obstructing traffic and destroying public property. The Chinese state routinely uses charges of public disturbance to imprison activists and silence dissent. The most famous was xunxin zishi. Picking quarrels and provoking trouble. He was found guilty and sentenced to four years and three months in prison. And it will be even longer than that. Before he saw freedom. 


Alison Klayman: But in another way, his detention ended up having the opposite effect. His imprisonment would transform him into a cause and a symbol, one that would reach more people within China and internationally than his activism ever did. And after so many years of detention, Guangcheng would decide to do something so daring that the whole world would have to pay attention. I’m Alison Klayman. 


Yangyang Cheng: I’m Yangyang Cheng, and this is episode three of Dissident at the Doorstep. 


Alison Klayman: After his initial conviction, Guangcheng appealed the verdict and was granted a retrial. Teng Biao, his friend and fellow legal activist from the one child case, wanted to represent Guangcheng as his lawyer. 


Teng Biao: The judges didn’t care about the law, the legal arguments or the evidence. He didn’t commit the crime. Just him wrote the verdict as they were constructed by the party. 


Alison Klayman: But Teng Biao was briefly detained to keep him from attending the trial when he was released. He came to the courthouse anyway. It was already too late. Guangcheng had lost his appeal and was being taken back to prison before the guards took Guangcheng away. Guangcheng’s brother tried to let him hold his daughter, who was only a few months old at the time. 


Teng Biao: [voice over] I was handcuffed and the guard was trying to drag me away. He pushed me hard. My daughter was scared and started crying. 


Alison Klayman: Teng Biao stepped forward. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] Teng Biao came over and handed me a bouquet. It’s made from leaves of a fatong. That’s a sycamore tree, 22 leaves tied up with a string. He handed it to me and said, your daughter made this for you. So I took it. Right then they took me into the van to head back to the detention center. I remember Teng Biao saying to me at the time that true justice was on my side and everyone was supporting me. And I remember telling him, don’t worry, my brother. I said that I won’t break or fall. I will only get stronger. 


Alison Klayman: Teng Biao was used to seeing his friends locked up. 


Teng Biao: I was very sad, but not very surprised because so many human rights defenders and dissidents were convicted and detained and and tortured. But Chen Guangcheng is kind of special because he’s he’s blind. And we know it’s very, very, painful to be blind, and extremely painful to to live in a prison, for more than four years. 


Alison Klayman: As the guards escorted Guangcheng back to the detention center. He says one of them ordered him to throw away his bouquet of sycamore leaves. He refused. 


Teng Biao: [voice over] I tied it up with a thread and hang it on the curtain. Next to where I slept. I kept it with me. Even after my transfer to prison from Yinan Detention Center to Linyi detention center, and then from the detention center to prison. I kept that bouquet with me all this time. 


Alison Klayman: During those years in prison. Guangcheng became one of many legal and human rights activists who were tried and sentenced as punishment for their work. The Chinese government hoped to stop their activities and scare others from trying them as well. Being thrown in jail meant Guangcheng was added to this list of people who might be namechecked in the background context paragraph of news articles about Chinese government repression of critics, or in reports by human rights organizations. Guangcheng’s name first appeared in the Human Rights Watch World Report the same year he got sentenced. From then on, he became a common reference in Human Rights Watch’s communications. All to say that during his years in prison, Guangcheng was gone but not forgotten, at least by people who are paying attention to these sorts of things. 


Yangyang Cheng: Half a year into his sentence, Guangcheng obtained a shortwave radio through it. He learned that local authorities had restricted his wife and children from leaving their home when they tried to visit Guangcheng in prison. They were harassed and beaten. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] When you hear this on the radio, you can feel the rage racing inside. You are so angry. You. You could kill someone. That kind of anger can really wake you up in the middle of the night. 


Yangyang Cheng: But Guangcheng had had to pretend that he did not know. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] So I had to do everything I could to manage my emotions. At least I could not lose my temper and let the CCP find more excuses to punish me. If they had taken my radio away. I would have lost my only access to the outside world. 


Yangyang Cheng: One of our producers, Boen, pointed out that if we were making a Hollywood movie, this would be the moment where the audience sees a montage of our hero getting buff in prison. Instead, Guangcheng use this time to train his mind. In particular, he spent a lot of time reading I Ching, The Book of Change. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] The I Ching, The Book of Changes was written by King Wen of the Zhou dynasty. During his seven years of imprisonment by King Zhou. So at that time, I made a special effort to study the I Ching in depth. 


Yangyang Cheng: During our conversations, Guangcheng often dropped references to Chinese folklore and classical texts. At first, I thought he was trying to sound erudite. Maybe there are some insecurity in Guangcheng whose formal education was hampered by his disability and rural upbringing. Yet the more we talked, the more I felt that this was not just a performance. Guangcheng’s knowledge of traditional Chinese culture shaped his sense of self, his understanding of the world, and his role in it. At times, when I listen to Guangcheng recount his experience of fighting against injustice, it felt like he had become a character in the legendary tale of his own making. 


Alison Klayman: In September 2010, he finally completed his formal prison sentence. The years he spent in prison were basically the years I spent living in China. It was a heady time to be there. In the years before and after China’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics, it was considered a coming out moment for the party to declare its might on the international stage. I moved to China after college without a firm plan or a job, but I remember everyone giving me credit like it was a very savvy thing to do. One conversation I had with a friend of my parents felt straight out of The Graduate, but instead of plastics, it was China. I think about all the developments in China and the world that Guangcheng missed out on during that period, the Beijing Olympics. The rise of YouTube, Twitter. The iPhone. The financial crash. The election of Obama. Guangcheng would have so much to catch up on, but he quickly learned that his release would not mean freedom. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] I was released in September, and in April, one of the guards slipping a bit of information. He said it’s probably going to be worse for you to be at home than to be in prison. That’s what he said. After I got back home. I learned that one week earlier my house had been turned into a prison. The CCP had already stationed dozens of guards in our village. So the moment at our home, I was placed under an illegal house arrest. I was never free. Later, they began to install video cameras and bright lights around their house, and the number of guards also increased. 


Alison Klayman: Guangcheng had been released from prison and placed right back into an extra legal house arrest. He had no idea how long it would last, but he did know he would do everything he could think of to free himself. The lockdown of Dongshigu was both high and low tech. Surveillance cameras were installed everywhere. High caliber mobile street lights were placed around the village and along the roads. The guards had special equipment to jam cell phone signals. Landlines were cut. Guards also physically kept Guangcheng and his family from leaving their home. Only Guangcheng’s 76 year old mother was allowed to leave the house, and around the village, guards and plainclothes thugs were stationed to keep anyone who tried to visit from entering. A few years earlier, an activist friend helped Guangcheng’s wife Weijing buy a small video camera. As soon as Guangcheng got home, he started learning how to use it, and he and Weijing began recording. 


Yangyang Cheng: The footage opens with an eerie sight. [clip of Weijing speaking Mandarin] Weijing holds the camera in a darkened room. She pointed out the window where we see a tall pile of leaves a few yards away. A guard’s forehead peeks above the leaves. A few seconds later, we see his eyes watching in our direction and then his full face. Weijing is the one who stacked the leaves trying to reclaim a bit of privacy for her family. But the guards brought ladders. Every day is like this, she says. Then Guangcheng appears. He’s wearing dark sunglasses and a black jacket buttoned to the collar. Behind him we see Spring Festival posters. The characters read, make great fortune arrive at this household. [Guangcheng speaking Mandarin] He talks to the camera. It’s been over ten weeks since I was moved from a small prison to an even larger prison. Weijing shows us messy piles of pumpkin, squash and cabbage on the floor. Unable to leave the house to buy groceries, the family relies on homegrown vegetables picked up by Guangcheng’s mother in their fields. Weijing says she does not know how long the food might last. She also says she worries for their children Kerui and Kesi. If she and Guangcheng encounter some danger, she says she hopes her friends will help care for the kids. My heart clenches as I watch these videos. The guards were not just keeping watch. They had also brutally beaten both Guangcheng and Weijing for minor infractions. I cannot imagine the level of fear, or the faith and fortitude it takes to make these secret recordings. Like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it out to see. We meet their daughter Kesi in the video. In this segment. It’s a Monday. All the other kids are at school, but the authorities have denied Kesi access to a normal education as punishment for her father’s activism. The five year old can only play by herself at home. A pile of sand is her toy. Kesi stuffs the sand into a ball and turns it over. She proudly presents the lump of sand to her mother as resembling a steamed bun. [clip of Weijing speaking Mandarin] In another part of the video, Guangcheng stands behind Kesi. His arms are wrapped around her shoulders. They pace across the room. Kesi starts reciting the multiplication table. One times one equals one. One times two equals two. Two times two equals four. I have seen this part of the video many times. I remember it. Frame by frame. The living room with a poster of full happiness on the wall. The sound of Kesi’s chuckle at the end. It’s the only time I’ve seen Guangcheng smile in all of the archival footage of him in China. Each time I rewatched this clip, tears well up in my eyes. I miss my family in China. I miss my father who died when I was little. If I dig into memories, deepest, softest corners and look for the last fragments of my father, the little girl I see is not much older than Kesi in the video. I was about Kesi’s age when I first learned arithmetic from my father. He made up stories using characters from Chinese folklore. If Monkey King picked four peaches and ate two, how many peaches are left? I also recited the multiplication table to him. Beyond all the public attention and political hardship, beyond all the extraordinary acts of defiance against the state. Guangcheng is a father, a husband, a son. He has a family. 


Alison Klayman: The part of the video that takes my breath away is where Guangcheng shows the camera his sycamore leaf bouquet. This is the one that Teng Biao handed him in court, made by his daughter. Guangcheng really did manage to protect this bouquet for five years. The leaves are all dried and brown and curled in on themselves. It’s a tangible testament to his persistence. In the video, first, he speaks directly to Teng Biao. [Guangcheng speaks Mandarin] He calls Teng Biao his brother and shows him the flowers that he saved all these years without a single leaf missing. Then he addresses the public he imagines will watch this video. He says, I want to tell all of you, no matter the circumstances. There is a way. There are always more solutions than problems. Guangcheng recorded this message without knowing if he’d ever be able to smuggle the video out, let alone reach someone who could help him. 


Bob Fu: One day. I was, actually walking toward Capitol Hill with my staff of, I think, yeah, during the, National Prayer Breakfast time. 


Alison Klayman: Bob Fu is the founder of a US based nonprofit called ChinaAid in early 2011. He says he got a message telling him to look at something that came into his organization via one of their secure apps. 


Bob Fu: So I got this, message. There was a video made, recorded by Guangcheng in Beijing from their besieged house showing the Chinese guards. These thugs were like, climbing on the top of the wall. It’s. I mean Weijing they were talking about, the, brutality, you know, inside their house. And, they would they were beaten up. They. And then I was astonished. It was just like a miracle. 


Alison Klayman: Bob later found out who got the tape out to him. It was a human rights lawyer who’s still in China, so he couldn’t share their name with us for safety. Bob and the folks at ChinaAid got busy right away. 


Bob Fu: We just immediately stopped any all the work would just, kind of, subtitled the English and, send it out. 


Alison Klayman: They uploaded it to YouTube in 15 minute chunks, the maximum allowed at the time. The video offered a window into Guangcheng’s experience under house arrest. It was featured on news outlets around the world. The fact that it was taped in secret and smuggled out made it an especially juicy story. 


Bob Fu: I think that was the first, breakthrough for the whole world knew what’s going on inside the confinement. The brutality. 


Alison Klayman: As punishment for the video getting out. Guangcheng was beaten unconscious and denied medical care. This time, his abuse was covered by the international press. On its own. The secret recording had managed to revive interest in Guangcheng long after the drama of his arrest and imprisonment had played out. But a few weeks after it was published, something happened that would keep the world’s attention on the mistreatment of activists and lawyers in China. The government began detaining dozens of people in a widespread crackdown. It was right around the time of the Arab Spring protests, and China was afraid of the possibility of a homegrown Jasmine Revolution. The crackdown made it harder for Guangcheng’s lawyer friends to help him. Teng Biao was detained in a black jail for 70 days, and then in early April, the crackdown reached its highest profile detainee, the artist AI Weiwei, who Colin and I were following for our documentary at the time. His disappearance into a black jail for 81 days supercharged the story. Listening back to the interviews I did about Weiwei around that time, I can tell that I was thinking about how his detention was making a wider audience pay attention to the kind of mistreatment of activists I’d seen happen in China over my many years as a journalist. I went on Tom Ashbrook’s show On Point to talk about it. He devoted a whole episode to AI Weiwei and The Crackdown. I mean, look, would we even be doing a show about people detained until it got up to his level? 


[clip of Tom Ashbrook]: We certainly don’t want to ignore the many others who have been picked up in this recent crackdown. We’re going to hear in just a few minutes from the great Jerome Cohen, who follows Chinese law and its application, and how—


Yangyang Cheng: Amidst all this, a grassroots movement focused specifically on Guangcheng was sprouting across the internet. His home video had gripped the hearts of people in and out of China. Supporters began making attempts to visit Guangcheng. In Dongshigu, some brought food and toys for his children. They posted videos of their pilgrimages in one video in order to reach the village and bypass security. Three men are trying to cross the Mun river, which Guangcheng often swam in as a child. One of them has stripped down to a pair of blue underpants so he can wade across. The man holding the camera says, it will be less cold once we are on shore. Hurry up. This is the deepest spot. In another video, a group of 29 people are trying to visit Dongshigu someone added background music before sharing it online. It’s raining and most of them are carrying umbrellas. The camera catches a man outside their group. He’s standing alone on the grassy strip by the side of the road, watching. A voice in the video says, that’s an undercover guard. Moments later, things take a turn. People start running. Shouting run. Run quickly. And later. Stop hitting people. How can you even hit women? Do not hit people, we hear screams. A few individuals are wrestled to the ground. We do not know what happened to the people in these videos. But as far as has been reported, none of the visits were successful. Many of the visitors were beaten. At least 13 were detained. 


Alison Klayman: Foreign reporters started taking a page from these brave activists too.


Andrew Jacobs: This is Andrew Jacobs from the New York Times. I’m here in Shandong province attempting to visit Chen  Guangcheng. 


[news clip]: He’s not allowed visitors. Shady figures supposedly guard him. / But last October, supporters released this video. They say it was filmed while they tried to visit Guangcheng in his home. / Any cars coming within five kilometers of Dongshigu village are followed. / Okay. It seems as if a car is following us. We’ve turned down this dirt road and we’re going to try to lose him. 


Alison Klayman: That was the New York Times, BBC, Al-Jazeera, Hong Kong cable TV and CNN. By the time Christian Bale went with CNN to Dongshigu, you had to wonder if holding Guangcheng under house arrest was really worth all the bad press for China. It was even spoiling some more celebratory news stories of US-China business cooperation. At the time, Hollywood was bullish on China. They wanted Chinese money via audiences and investors, and every studio was racing to announce their own co-production or joint venture project. One of these projects was a slapstick comedy from the writers of The Hangover called 21 & Over. 


[clip from 21 & Over]: Did we just kill Jeff Chang? I am super psyched to see Jeff Chang. Are we sure it’s cool to surprise him like this? Yeah, dude, as his oldest friends on Earth. We have a moral obligation to get him drunk as— Jeff Chang.


Alison Klayman: In a press release, the studio mentioned it was cooperating closely with the Linyi Municipal Committee of the CCP. An exec told Deadline Linyi was a, quote, “Amazing place.” Linyi is also the county where Guangcheng was being held. Nanjing-based activist He Peirong told deadline she hoped that Relativity Media, the production company, would learn more about the real Linyi, about Chen Guangcheng, and see that what is currently happening in Dongshigu Village is what is really amazing. When Guangcheng was first arrested, he barely made international news. Now he’s being covered everywhere from The Washington Post to Hollywood Reporter. 21 & Over was released in 2013 and stars Miles Teller. The Chinese version featured extra scenes shot in Linyi. 


Yangyang Cheng: This period of new attention on Guangcheng coincided with the rise of digital activism in China and around the world. It was enabled by a new type of platform social media. Countless netizens wrote blog posts, composed voice messages, and recorded videos expressing their admiration for the blind activist and their hopes for his release. When necessary, they found creative ways around the online censors who delete posts with Guangcheng’s name. An artist launched the campaign to ask people to send a photo of themselves wearing a pair of sunglasses or a blindfold, as a gesture to Guangcheng’s iconic image. I recall seeing these images at the time. I just moved to the U.S. for graduate school. Each encounter with a shaded face online caused a stirring. I felt a renewed connection to my homeland and indulged in hopes for its future. Over a decade later. As I scroll through the hundreds of photos from the Sunglasses Portraits campaign. It is exceedingly clear that Guangcheng, whose likeness has gone viral, is no longer Guangcheng, the person. Instead, Guangcheng has become an idea. The idea of Guangcheng embodies light and honesty. The two characters in his name, as well as the darkness and oppression his predicament evokes in a new age of social media. His iconic image became a meme synonymous with dissent when netizens in and out of China put on a pair of sunglasses and snap a selfie. What they’re identifying with is not so much who Guangcheng is or what he has done, but what they wish China and the world to be. Your perseverance is the light of China, says one social media post from late 2011. Many quotes the famous line by the Chinese poet Gu Cheng. The darkness of the night has given me the darkness in my eyes, but I used them to seek the light. 


Alison Klayman: And while all this was happening, Guangcheng was plotting his escape. You might think that escaping a village under lockdown would be impossible. You might think that being blind would make such an escape even more impossible. Not Guangcheng. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] In fact, since the day I came back, I had decided to escape. 


Alison Klayman: He says even his mother doubted her son’s plans. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] My mother said not. There are more than 100 pairs of eyes watching you and you cannot see. So how can you escape? I told her that the guards are not divine as long as they are human. There’s always a chance. Even a tiger sometimes needs a nap. 


Alison Klayman: For months, with help from his wife Weijing, Guangcheng meticulously observed the guards routine when they got bored, when they needed to stretch their legs or get something to eat. When the air inside the house got too hot or stale for comfort, Weijing also helped assess the surroundings, the placement of guards and surveillance cameras, the location and height of trees down to the details of tile placement on nearby roofs, and when the neighborhood dog might bark. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] There are 24 hours in a day, so three eight hour shifts. A person cannot stay still for all that time. That’s unbearable. The guards had to get up, stretch their legs and talk to each other. Slowly we realized that we could find some opportunities. Of course, these opportunities were fleeting. But before the actual escape, you had to let the guards get used to not seeing you for a long period of time. So then you can suddenly shift to another spot when he’s not looking. In other words, you have to make him think that you’re still inside the house when in fact you had left. You have to get used to not seeing you every day. After some practice, I found that these guards got used to it. And ultimately, we got a chance. 


Alison Klayman: It was April 2012, over a year and a half into their house arrest, and they noticed their neighbor’s dog had disappeared. This was a huge breakthrough. That dogs barking was as troublesome as any human guard. Guangcheng and Weijing were on high alert for a chance to make moves. Then, on the morning of April 22nd. 


Richard Yeh: I had just finished breakfast that morning before. We had tried many times at night, but I found that since it’s very quiet at night, the dogs would notice even the slightest movement. That morning, my wife gave me a squeeze on the shoulder and said, go.


Alison Klayman: They rushed out of the house and Guangcheng climbed some stairs to the top of his house’s courtyard wall. 


Richard Yeh: Originally, the CCP had ordered someone to get lots of thorny branches from the mountains and start them on top of the wall. But because my neighbor was greedy, he took a bit of the thorny branches every day to use as firewood. So, without even realizing it, he had done me a favor. 


Alison Klayman: This next part of the story was laid out in detail in Guangcheng’s memoir, The Barefoot Lawyer. First, he waited at the top of that wall for evening to come. When he finally jumped down eight hours later, he landed badly into a pile of rocks in the empty courtyard next door. The pain was agony. He could feel something was really wrong with his right foot, but he decided to keep going. 


Yangyang Cheng: Guangcheng tried to get the attention of a neighbor he trusted. He thought maybe they could drive him somewhere or call a taxi. But despite being just outside their window, he couldn’t figure out how to get their attention without tipping off the guards. No one was going to help him, he realized. For now, he was leaving, Weijing and Kesi behind too. That meant he didn’t have a sighted person to rely on, so he tracked the sounds of each person and animal in earshot, mapping them onto his mental layout of the possible escape route. 


Alison Klayman: The night was an adrenaline fueled mix of waiting and fast judgments. His swollen foot felt like it might burst his shoe open. Sometimes he might make progress, like when he dismantled a loosely built stone wall, quietly removing each rock and placing it on the ground until he had a hole to crawl through. But then he would hear someone approaching and make a quick decision to go back through the wall to where he had come from in order to hide. Finally, just before daylight, he had a chance to cross the road at the town’s edge. He says he made a break for it, hunched over on all fours, head low, scuttling like an insect across the road. His heart was racing. Any sighted person could have easily seen him. Miraculously, no one did. He had made it out of the village. 


Yangyang Cheng: But now what? Where in China might a wanted man find safety? That’s next time. On Dissident at the Doorstep. Dissident at the Doorstep is an original podcast from Crooked Media. Our hosts are Alison Klayman Colin Jones and me Yangyang Cheng. From Crooked Media. Our executive producers are Tommy Vietor, Sarah Geismer and Katie Long, with special thanks to Mary Knauf and Alison Falzetta. Our senior producer is Maria Byrne and Meg Cramer. Maura Walz is our story editor. Our producer is Wudan Yan. Our associate producers are Boen Wang and Sydney Rapp. Translation by Valerie C, with additional translation by me, Yangyang Cheng and Richard Yeh. Voiceovers by Richard Yeh. Our fact checker is Tamika Adams. Sound design and mixing by Hannis Brown original score by Ilan Isakov and our podcast Art is by John Lee