NEW YORK – Western media describe my friend and colleague Chen Guangcheng as a blind activist who made a flight to freedom when China allowed him to journey from Beijing to the United States. What is essential about Chen is neither his blindness nor his family’s visit to the US, but the fact that he upholds a vision of universal human rights, a vision that can be fully realized only when, and if, China honors its promise to allow him one day to return home.
China has a history of forcing scholars and dissidents like us into exile. When the Chinese student movement broke out in 1989, I was pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of California-Berkeley. I traveled to Beijing to participate as an activist in Tiananmen Square, where I narrowly escaped the massacre and was able to make my way back to the US.
Due to my activism, however, China refused to renew my passport. So, when I returned to China in 2002 to help the movement for workers’ rights, I used a friend’s passport. China incarcerated me as a political prisoner for five years, until 2007. For a year and a half of that period, I was held in solitary confinement, without access to visitors, reading materials, or even paper and pen.