Chen studied law from listening to the radio and books and newspapers read to him by his wife
He is persecuted and held under house arrest for helping villagers fight for their legal rights
Many Chinese micro-bloggers have been tweeting and calling for Chen's release
More people are protesting against issues such as corruption, land disputes and forced relocation
I first interviewed blind activist Chen Guangcheng for CNN in 2004. We drove five hours from Beijing to visit him in Dongshigu, a rural hamlet in Shandong province.
During our visit, he counseled a blind farmer who was being hounded by local officials to pay taxes he claimed he did not owe.
“Next time before you pay taxes, remember to ask for a receipt,” Chen advised. “You should collect evidence, otherwise it’s hard to investigate and prosecute.”
The 39-year-old Chen is self-taught and is one of a small group of activists pushing the margins of political dissent in China. He told me he learned the legal ropes from listening to the radio and television and from books and newspapers read to him by his wife and father.
Blinded by a fever at age two, Chen has been jailed, tortured and is still being persecuted and held under house arrest for helping villagers fight for their legal rights.
In recent weeks, many Chinese micro-bloggers have been tweeting and calling for Chen’s release. With the tweets, they post an iconic photo of him wearing dark glasses and some have even posted photos of themselves wearing dark sunglasses.
Chen has advocated non-violent means to resolve conflicts, which has garnered him widespread support in China and abroad – including a recent Nobel Peace Prize nomination.
“He’s against rioting,” New York University professor Jerome Cohen noted. “He wants all their efforts to be channeled into legal institutions.”
But the muckraking blind lawyer has made government officials uneasy.
Several months after my interview, Chen documented cases of allegedly forced abortions and sterilizations connected to China’s one-child policy in his village. He helped victims to file a class action suit against local officials, prompting their anger and vengeance.
Soon after, he was locked up in prison for four years on charges of “disturbing public order.” During that time, he was awarded the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award, given to emerging leaders in Asia.
Chen was released in September last year, but remains under house arrest. He, his wife Yuan Weijing and 6-year-old daughter Chen Kesi have been confined to their home and barred from receiving visitors.
Local officials have set up roadblocks to fend off activists, foreign diplomats and reporters who attempt to visit Chen. When our CNN crew tried to interview him in February, they were roughed up.
Chen’s plight has prompted an outpouring of support among micro-bloggers in China – some even soliciting donations and raising more than US$4,500 over the past four months.
It is not surprising that Chinese authorities are spooked by Chen given calls earlier this year in the blogosphere for a “Jasmine Revolution,” and mass protests patterned after the revolution in the Middle East and Africa.
So far, such protests have had little traction here and President Hu Jintao has made it his mission to build a more harmonious society.
But China’s economic rise has come at a cost and with the economy sagging, sections of the population are showing signs of restiveness.
Demonstrations are often fueled by local issues like corruption, land disputes, forced relocation, a growing gap between the rich and the poor, and environmental concerns.
In late October, more than 1,000 people took to the streets for two days and damaged several vehicles in the town of Zhili in Zhejiang province, protesting against tax increases. `
Several people were injured when the demonstrators – mostly small business owners and factory workers – clashed with the police. The protests subsided only after the authorities agreed to rescind the tax increase and the police kept its heavy security presence.
China-based market research firm Horizon cited various reasons why people feel their living standards have deteriorated, including rising prices, stagnant income, and a decline in confidence in the government’s ability to create jobs and fight corruption.
More than 70% of the respondents blame poverty on the unjust social structure rather than lack of hard work.
“Negative public sentiments are constantly on the rise,” says Horizon chairman Victor Yuan. “People tend to rush to often negative conclusions and magnify the government’s inability to deal with emergency situation.”
One of Beijing’s worst nightmares is the outbreak of a peasant rebellion. Observers say harsh repression is turning obscure critics into rallying figures.
In the past two months, streams of Chen Guangcheng sympathizers have journeyed to his village in support.
“Before we reached the village, we were intercepted by about 100 people,” Liu Li tells CNN. “I was surrounded by a dozen of them. They beat me up until I passed out.”
Liu, 49, last week joined scores of people who responded to calls from micro-bloggers to support the blind lawyer. “Chen is just like any of us,” said Liu. “He should be freed.”