Brave Thinkers 2012 November 2012

Chen Guangcheng

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Civil-Rights Activist

The “Tank Man” photo has shaped the world’s memory of the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 because it conveys so many themes at once. The physical courage of a lone, slightly built man standing up to an army; the act of individual protest in a society usually assumed to value collective interests over any one person; even the moral choice posed to the tank drivers, about whether to run over an unarmed fellow citizen. They didn’t—after a few minutes, other civilians hustled the Tank Man off the street and away from any effort to identify him or hear his story in all the years since.

China’s censorship in those days was so thoroughgoing that the photo and the event it represented are barely known among today’s young Chinese. But the current era has produced another symbol of brave, individual moral protest, and the spread of social media means that his message and example have a better chance of surviving.

Chen, who has been blind since early childhood and taught himself law, showed physical courage comparable to the Tank Man’s in climbing over walls and feeling his way along roadsides for miles, to escape the house in which local authorities had detained and physically abused him and his family for years. He broke a bone in his foot and fell repeatedly, but he continued on.

Yet his more impressive courage is intellectual and temperamental. Intellectually, he has challenged Chinese authorities, not to give up their hold on power, but instead to live up to the commitments they have made to Chinese citizens, on issues ranging from the rights of the disabled to protection against forced abortions. Temperamentally, he has remained resolute and optimistic, even while knowing that his family still in China is vulnerable to retribution, and that as an exile, he may lose influence in his homeland. “The Chinese people are more and more aware of their rights,” he told me in a recent interview. “In the past, people might hear only about their own situations. Now they know about others, and they help each other.

“This is an inevitable trend of history. There is nothing that can stand in its way.”

See all our 2012 Brave Thinkers.

Image credit: Eric Ogden

James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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