NEW YORK - Chen Guangcheng, the blind self-taught lawyer and one of the best-known Chinese human rights activists, arrived in New York last spring after an incredible escape from his village in the coastal Shandong province. He finally arrived thanks to a last-minute compromise reached between the Chinese authorities and U.S. diplomats who had sheltered him in the American embassy in Beijing.
Chen now lives with his wife Yuan Weijing and their two children in NYU Law Faculty housing in Greenwich Village, not far from Washington Square Park.
It is far away indeed, in so many ways, from the tiny village where he was held under house arrest for years, with henchmen positioned in front of the house ready to beat up him and his wife or anyone who went to visit them.
“It’s a challenge being here,” he says, seated in a small Japanese restaurant, next to his wife, his eternal companion and pillar of strength.
“But we are doing well. We are doing well,” he repeats.
No longer does he pass his days asking when the end will come of the nightmare he fell into by taking on local authorities; now he is learning English and helping his children adapt to their new life. There are also meetings with American academics and a plan to write an autobiography.
“If I look back... The experience was awful. But these years didn’t succeed in filling me with terror. They did infuriate me, however,” he says, moving his head in an uncertain way, as if he was searching in the air for a way to cast off the terrible memories.
Do it again?
When asked if he would do the same thing again - help the villagers denounce the local authorities for unjust taxes for the disabled, to fight against illegitimate land expropriation, cases of intentional pollution, abuse of the one-child policy - before he could reply the ordinarily reserved Yuan Weijing interrupts, “No! Absolutely no: we would not do it again, I would not repeat anything that we have done! It was too dangerous,” she says, hiding her anguish behind a spontaneous laugh.
Then Chen starts to speak: “You can’t change history. You ask me if, going back, I would have started fighting to defend human rights? It is not a choice. It is that, and that’s it,” he says.
Yuan watches him, filling his plate with the best dishes, explaining to him what she is serving and encouraging him to eat more, because he has lost weight since arriving in the U.S.
Talking of the many dissidents who have found themselves in exile, incapable of exerting influence on their mother country, Chen says: “To leave was not what I wanted. Consider, however, that when I was at home, in Shandong, during my seven years of house arrest and prison, I wasn’t even allowed to make a telephone call. I had no contact with the outside world: now I am out of the country, but at least I can communicate with many people, even in China. Not with everybody: I have had no news of my nephew Chen Kegui, who they've accused of attempted murder for defending himself during a nighttime police raid after my escape. And they promised to leave him in peace, and to open an enquiry into the abuse that we have suffered!”
The restaurant has filled up and a group of Chinese students who arrived for lunch have started to take discrete cell phone pictures of Chen Guangcheng at our corner table. Unlike other dissidents who have become famous for their writing, Chen represents the common people, the disabled, the villagers and the expropriated, and has many supporters in China who know and respect him.
“I think it is very important that the world continues to put pressure on China to respect human rights, across the country,” he says, unaware that he has become the object of attention of other diners. “China isn’t just Shanghai and Beijing. And what happens in the countryside is much worse still.”
Since being in America he has been striving to apply this pressure, without worrying about the polarization of U.S. politics and the possibility of being used by one side or the other. “I don’t understand American politics, and frankly they interest me very little. My work concerns China and its future and I want to remain faithful to myself,” he says.
His plans for the next year include a visit to Taiwan: Chen has accepted the invitation, even if such a journey will complicate his dream to return to China as soon as possible. “I have no doubt,” he says, “that China will become a democracy. And I believe that it will happen soon. If we all work towards this objective, our future will certainly be much better. I am convinced that what Taiwan is today, China can be tomorrow: a democracy where laws and human rights are respected.”
And he repeats, filled by the sudden burst of optimism: “No, I have no doubt about this.”
Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.
🌎 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW
• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.
• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.
• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.
• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.
• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.
• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.
🗞️ FRONT PAGE
"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.
#️⃣ BY THE NUMBERS
For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.
📰 STORY OF THE DAY
Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction
Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.
🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.
😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.
🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.
➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com
We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.
— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.
🇮🇷🎓 IN OTHER NEWS
Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement
Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.
Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.
The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.
Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.
Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."
Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.
✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger
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