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Originally published on April 9, 2015 7:34 am
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As China becomes wealthier and more influential, its government has grown no more tolerant of dissent, especially when it comes to criticism of human rights. That has been especially clear since a man known as the blind dissident fled to the American embassy in Beijing three years ago. Chen Guangcheng is now in the United States and has written a book about his experiences. He recently spoke with NPR's Anthony Kuhn.

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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: In February of 2006, I traveled to the farmland of eastern Shandong province to interview Chen Guangcheng. He was under house arrest, closely guarded by men armed with clubs. I couldn't get into Chen's village, so I stayed with a family of peanut farmers nearby. Their simple farmhouse was freezing cold on that snowy day. My hosts burned peanut shells in a stove to cook us dinner.

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KUHN: I couldn't get to Chen, so his family helped me to record this interview. In it, he told me how he had discovered that local officials were carrying out illegal forced abortions and sterilizations. He also describes how officials and hired thugs beat and injured him many times.

CHEN GUANGCHENG: (Through interpreter) But these wounds were not as severe as the mental wounds. All these years under the rule of law have not given people any awareness of the law. It's a tragedy, a tragedy for all of us.

KUHN: Chen's book is called "Barefoot Lawyer." By barefoot, he just means that he had no formal legal training, and he worked as a grassroots rural activist. In the book, he tells the story of growing up blind in a poor farming family. He recounts seven years of isolation, beatings and privations under house arrest. And he details his harrowing escape from his village all the way to Beijing in 2012. He crept through farm yards and fields, scaling the walls between them. Coming off one wall, he fell and broke his foot. In a recent interview, he told me how close he was to getting caught.

GUANGCHENG: (Through interpreter) There were centuries outside every farmyard. They were extremely close to me. All they had to do was stand up and peer inside the yard, and they would have seen me.

KUHN: Chen says hundreds of people were employed, and hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent to keep him down. Some of these people admitted to Chen the whole operation had nothing to do with law enforcement. It was simply about quashing any challenge to the Communist Party's authority. Chen remembers criticizing a police officer who came to search his home.

GUANGCHENG: (Through interpreter) The officer shook his head and said, we're not acting as the police now. I said, if you're not the police, what are you doing here? He said, the Communist Party told us to come here. I said, oh, you're the party's private army? He didn't reply.

KUHN: Chen eventually sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. He says he's grateful to the U.S. government for sheltering him. But he's still disappointed that just like Beijing, the Obama administration wanted him out of the way of its high-level diplomacy.

GUANGCHENG: (Through interpreter) I hope the American people will truly recognize that in overseeing their own government, they still need to keep their eyes wide open, even though they're living in a democratic society.

KUHN: At the time, then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney slammed both Obama and Beijing for their treatment of Chen Guangcheng. Veteran San Francisco-based human rights campaigner John Kamm argues that U.S. domestic politics may have been a decisive factor in Chen's case.

JOHN KAMM: The rationale for letting Chen Guangcheng and his family go to the states really had nothing to do with respect, per se, for his rights or even humanitarian factors.

KUHN: John Kamm says that since Chen's release, it's been harder for foreign governments to ask Beijing about the cases of Chinese political prisoners. Previously, governments would hand Beijing a list of prisoners of concern - but not anymore.

KAMM: That is, within a month of Chen Guangcheng's departure for the United States, the Chinese government decided to no longer accept prisoner lists in bilateral human rights dialogues. They don't want governments getting involved in individual cases. They've made that very clear.

KUHN: Chen Guangcheng and his family have settled in the Washington, D.C. area. He gets support from a think tank called the Witherspoon Institute and the Catholic University of America. He says his mission now is to expose the brutal nature of Communist rule in China. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.