In This Episode
It’s 2011. Hollywood A-lister Christian Bale is in China and gets punched in the face by security guards for trying to visit Chen Guangcheng, a local human rights activist under house arrest. It’s all captured by a CNN crew and broadcast across the world. A few months later Guangcheng would escape to the United States. But after you arrive in America as a hero, what happens next?
Stan Grant: Oh, well. Okay, well that’s easy. You’re a genius. Thank you. [laughs] You’re fantastic. Thank you. Hello.
Colin Jones: Hello.
Stan Grant: Hi. Stan. Here. How are you going?
Colin Jones: Hi, Stan. This is, this is Colin.
Stan Grant: Hi Colin.
Colin Jones: And Alison from from Brooklyn.
Stan Grant: Alison, hi.
Alison Klayman: Hi, Stan.
Stan Grant: Hey. How are you going?
Alison Klayman: I’m Alison Klayman. That’s my husband, Colin Jones. Recently, we called up Stan Grant, one of Australia’s most respected and awarded journalists. We wanted to talk to him about an unusual phone call. He got back in December 2011. So then tell us about the Hollywood star. [laughter] As a CNN correspondent in Beijing. Stan got a lot of calls, but not from celebrities. That’s why this particular request was so surprising.
Stan Grant: Christian Bale, who the world would know as Batman. He got in contact with us and, and called our bureau and said, look, I’ve seen your story on Chen Guangcheng, and I’d like to try to get to meet the man.
Alison Klayman: Christian was in China for the premiere of a new film, and he was asking Stan to take him to a tiny village in Shandong province to meet a blind human rights activist named Chen Guangcheng.
Stan Grant: And we said, well, if you’ve seen the story, you know how difficult that’s going to be. Nigh on impossible.
Colin Jones: The man Christian wanted to see had grown up in a poor farming village. It wasn’t until he was a teenager that Chen Guangcheng had learned to read Braille. But almost as soon as he did, he started teaching himself law. Then he started challenging local officials on behalf of the rural poor and the disabled. Sometimes he even managed to win. Guangcheng’s biggest case involve trying to stop officials in his home county from carrying out a brutal campaign of forced abortions and sterilizations under China’s One Child Policy that got him arrested. He spent years in jail, and after he was released, Guangcheng was put right back under house arrest in the same village where he had grown up. Dongshigu. Guards were stationed outside his home 24/7, making sure that Guangcheng couldn’t leave and other people couldn’t get to him. So Stan told Christian to keep his expectations low.
Stan Grant: Now, I said, you know, Christian, we’re really not going to get to Chen Guangcheng. And he said, well, no, I think we should try. And that then began a chain of events. It started to resemble something out of a Hollywood movie.
Alison Klayman: The first thing Stan and CNN needed to figure out was how to get Christian out of Beijing. As one of the most famous actors in the world on a press circuit for a new film, the Chinese government was keeping a close eye on him. They made their plans via email. Christian used a secret account and a fake name. Stan and his crew decided they would pick Christian up in the middle of the night at three in the morning. They drove their van into the bowels of his hotel parking garage.
Stan Grant: As we drove in, we opened the side door of the van and this hooded figure who was standing in the darkness. Then raced across the car park into the back of the van. And and we we took off.
Alison Klayman: Stan and Christian, and the CNN crew made the eight hour drive from Beijing to Dongshigu. As the sun rose, they watched as the glass towers of the city gave way to a parched, rural expanse. Finally, their van arrived at the village entrance, a single lane paved road flanked by bare trees. Patches of snow were on the ground. They got out of the van and were immediately stopped by—
Stan Grant: A big, hulking figure who was an enormous character, and he was wearing one of those old green army gray coats and one of those army hats with the red star and the furry flaps tied up on the side. And he came toward us and, with his his other security by his side.
Colin Jones: They could have been plainclothes police. They might have just been local guys hired to do exactly what they were doing now. Whoever they were, they were not letting Stan and Christian into the village.
[clip of Christian Bale]: Why can I not go? Why can I not go visit this man?
[news clip]: Hollywood actor Christian Bale is used to action, but this is no movie set. / We’ve been stopped—
Colin Jones: This is from the roughly 2.5 minute story that CNN broadcast later that day.
[news clip]: Watch it Christian.
Colin Jones: I turned around at one point while I was trying to fend off one of the security people to see Christian dodging a hail of blows, but with his camera out and filming it at the same time.
[news clip]: As we leave, the guards give chase in their car. They’re still right on our tail.
Colin Jones: We got back into the car, pursued through the streets. There were several cars pursuing us and others at other roadblocks trying to intercept us, and we were going at great speed down tiny laneways and dirt roads, trying to find a way back and get out of the city, which we did ultimately manage to do.
[news clip]: Christian Bale says this is not what he had hoped for.
[clip of Christian Bale]: What I really wanted to do was shake the man’s hand and say thank you, and tell him what inspiration he is.
Colin Jones: Christian did not get to meet Guangcheng that day, but his attempted visit became a huge international story.
Stan Grant: You can only imagine what Batman confronting Chinese security to try to get to see a blind Chinese activist, would do, it just lit everything up.
Colin Jones: Catching all this on the news was pretty surreal. I couldn’t quite get my head around the fact that a Hollywood A-lister had run off from his press circuit to go get hit in the face. Probably, inevitably, a lot of the coverage focused on Christian. It was almost like he was both the hero and the victim in the story. The headline I still remember was Batman Star Punched. But of course, that’s not really how Christian wanted the story to play. Guangcheng was the hero, and Christian wanted the world to know about him. As it so happened, the world was about to find out. Only a few months after Christian Bale tried to visit, Guangcheng escaped house arrest. Soon, he found himself at the center of a diplomatic crisis between the world’s two superpowers, and after a series of events that made the Bale episode seem trivial by comparison, Guangcheng made it to the United States. Here, he received a hero’s welcome. [applause]
[news clip]: A moment of jubilation and liberation for the blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng. A New York moment too, with flashbulbs and well-wishers and their whole hearted support.
Colin Jones: But after you arrive in America as a hero, what happens to you next?
Professor Jerry Cohen: He was becoming a political football. Washington kept coming at him.
Teng Biao: Many Chinese people who have to escape China feel it’s really difficult to have a new life in a totally different country.
Danny Russel: He was frequently changing his mind. He was often manipulated.
Martin Flaherty: He felt that he was being controlled by the people who were actually some of his best friends.
Mattie Bekink: Both sides were just hearing what they wanted to hear.
Robbie George: No, he thinks for himself.
Alison Klayman: From Crooked Media, this is Dissident at the Doorstep.
Colin Jones: Back in 2011. We were paying attention to the story, not just because of the spectacle of it all. Ali and I were especially interested because we had been living in China, working as journalists, and had been making a documentary film about another Chinese activist named AI Weiwei. Weiwei was an internationally famous contemporary artist. That same year that Christian tried to visit Guangcheng, Weiwei also made headlines around the world when he was arrested by Chinese authorities and held for 81 days.
Alison Klayman: It was really scary when Weiwei disappeared. No one was sure if we’d ever see him again. Eventually he was released, but the government wouldn’t let him leave China for several years.
Colin Jones: I remember thinking at the time that if that could happen to someone as well known and connected as Ai Weiwei, what hope did someone like Guangcheng have? Of course, I was totally wrong. Within what seemed like the blink of an eye, Guangcheng was here in New York, living about 100 blocks south of the apartment that Ali and I ended up in after leaving Beijing. During that first summer that he and his family were here, Guangcheng might have been the most famous human rights figure in the world. Everyone wanted a piece. Richard Gere and George Soros were reaching out for meetings. Members of Congress were clamoring for him to come testify in D.C., and he was getting invited to all kinds of human rights galas and society functions. We first met Guangcheng on one of these, a black tie gala, Condé Nast Traveler held at Lincoln Center. That was probably the most glittery event I’ve been to in the city. Susan Sarandon and Michael Bloomberg were there. I remember standing at the urinal and then realizing that the guy next to me was Sir Richard Branson.
Alison Klayman: Branson was one of the 12 visionaries being honored that night by Condé Nast Traveler for being a global citizen who was changing our world. Here he is on the red carpet.
[clip of Sir Richard Branson]: It’s the one award you feel really good about receiving because Condé Nast is such a well respected magazine.
Alison Klayman: Hillary Clinton and Susan Sarandon also received awards on the red carpet, Branson and Olivia Wilde, another honoree, posed for pictures.
[clip of Olivia Wilde]: [paparazzi clamoring] I just can’t wait to meet all of these people tonight, because these are the people who are changing the world.
Alison Klayman: AI Weiwei had also been named a Condé Nast visionary, which is why we got an invite. But Weiwei couldn’t be there. He was still not allowed to leave China. So instead, Guangcheng had been invited to accept Weiwei’s prize on his behalf. I met Guangcheng in the lobby right before we all funneled into the theater. He was swarmed by people, and we only got to talk for a few seconds. I think I said I admired him greatly and probably mentioned knowing AI Weiwei when Guangcheng accepted the award on stage. I remember being struck by how powerful a speaker he was. It didn’t matter that he had spent the previous seven years in detention, and he was speaking through a translator. He easily commanded the audience’s attention. Offstage, Guangcheng posed for pictures with Jeffrey Wright and Nicholas Kristof. Seemingly everyone wanted to shake his hand. I’m a Tom Wolfe fan, and there was obviously something radical chic about the evening. Guangcheng, who only months before had been under house arrest in rural China, was now being fêted among the glitterati of New York. But I figured if this earned a little more attention for him and his cause, what was the harm? He’d been fighting for the rule of law in China and the rights of the rural poor, especially women. And it made sense to me at the time that his activism in China was part of a larger project. Guangcheng was one of many liberals around the world trying to right injustices.
Colin Jones: After so many months of being a news story and an honoree, Guangcheng faded from the public eye. I figured that he had settled into a quieter life, as many dissidents do once they’re forced to leave China. As the years passed, I really stopped thinking about him much at all. Soon enough anyway. Trump had been elected president, and my attention was swept up in the waking nightmare of how the rest of the decade played out. There was the incessant and vulgar cruelty of Trump’s presidency. The climate crisis accelerated and became seemingly irreversible. The relationship between China and the US, which had never really been so great, veered toward open hostility. And then, as if in slow motion, we watched as COVID gripped the entire world. After all this, I hadn’t really thought about Guangcheng for years. But then in August 2020, with a presidential election on the horizon, Guangcheng appeared in the national spotlight once again. This time, though, it was as an official speaker at the Republican National Convention where he endorsed Donald Trump for reelection.
[clip of Chen Guangcheng]: Greetings, my name is Chen Guangcheng, standing up to tyranny is not easy. I know so does President Trump. But he has shown the courage to wage that fight.
Alison Klayman: I was shocked. I couldn’t quite imagine how Guangcheng had gotten on that stage, or how he’d ended up believing something like this. It just did not square with the man we’d met almost a decade earlier. And then came January 6th. [screaming]
Colin Jones: Guangcheng was in the back of my mind that day. So while we were watching footage of people storming the Capitol, I had the thought to check his Twitter account. I wanted to see what his take was. And what I found was a series of videos he posted of himself at the rally near the White House, standing amid a crowd as yellow Don’t Tread on Me flags waved overhead. [chanting] Stumbling onto these videos, I was hit again by the sense of bewilderment. I couldn’t quite get my head around how, in the span of a decade, Guangcheng could go from standing up against authoritarianism in China to become just another guy at the Stop the Steal rally.
Yangyang Cheng: I first learned of Guangcheng’s activism when I was still a teenager living in China. I have followed his work ever since.
Alison Klayman: This is Yangyang Cheng, a research scholar at Yale Law School and a frequent writer on Chinese politics and US-China relations. She grew up in China and moved to the U.S. around the same time Colin and I moved to China. Yangyang is going to be our other co-host for the series.
Yangyang Cheng: I came to the U.S. in 2009 for my PhD in physics. After graduation, I stayed here to continue my physics research. Trump’s election and the deteriorating political situation in China shattered my naive notions of the world and my place in it. I read in search of answers, but I found fewer writing from my background or perspective. I felt I had things to say that no one else could speak for me, so I picked up the pen myself. One thing led to another, and after over a decade of working on the Large Hadron Collider, I switched disciplines in the middle of the pandemic to the field of China studies. During all this time, I have paid attention to Guangcheng’s story. The Batman incident Colin and Ali brought up at the beginning of this episode, however, was news to me. I think that story slipped my mind when it took place, because I had no idea who Christian Bale was at the time, but I do remember being deeply struck by Guangcheng’s courage and conviction. I read about his triumphant arrival to New York and then watched him endorse Donald Trump at the 2020 Republican National Convention. Seeing this trajectory felt like the subversion of a fairy tale instead of happily ever after. The story ends in heartbreak and betrayal. It also encapsulates much of what has happened in my birth country and my adopted home during my lifetime. I hope that by tracing Guangcheng’s life and work, I can relive the years of reform and regression in China that I witnessed but was too young to understand and to try to untangle some of the troubled ties between the world’s two superpowers.
Colin Jones: We also have some other big questions, starting with how did this happen? How does someone who stood for democracy and rule of law in China end up joining an insurrection, looking to overturn a U.S. election?
Yangyang Cheng: Is Guangcheng free? Is America the land of the free?
Alison Klayman: And what do you do with someone who you feel has betrayed everything you’ve idolized them for? What do you do with their legacy?
Yangyang Cheng: So much has been said about Guangcheng and assumed about him by others. But we wanted to get to know the man himself. And to do that, we must try to speak to him directly. That’s, after the break. [music plays] When we started working on this project, we heard that Guangcheng would receive a major prize from a conservative organization in the spring of 2022 that would also fall just around the ten year anniversary of his arrival in the US. It seemed like a great opportunity to connect. We had no idea if Guangcheng would agree to talk to us, but we figured we could at least ask in person. So Colin got in touch with the organization that was giving Guangcheng his prize, the Bradley Foundation.
Colin Jones: Given that we are associated with Crooked Media, which is run by former Obama staffers, I wasn’t sure what the Bradley people would make of a media request from me, but after waiting a few days, I got a friendly reply from Bradley’s head of comms. That all was good. So I was headed to Washington, D.C.. [music plays] The Bradley Prizes were held inside the Great Hall of the National Building Museum, just east of the White House. The room was enormous, flanked by Corinthian columns holding up a ceiling that must have been 50ft high. Still, it felt packed to me. I see a lot of blue suits, and as I as I was saying, a lot of you know sort of sanitized, pastel blue ties, very, very DC vibe. The crowd was mostly older and white, but not exclusively so. I was eager to see Guangcheng to see how much he had changed since I met him ten years earlier. But as I scanned the crowd, he was nowhere to be seen.
Alison Klayman: The Bradley Foundation was not something I was familiar with before we heard about Guangcheng getting this award. Turns out Bradley is over 80 years old. It’s been conservative for all that time. One of its founders was also a charter member of the John Birch Society. But it’s really only been in the last two decades that Bradley has emerged as a major force in American politics, helping to shape the conservative agenda at the national level. Bradley has hundreds of millions of dollars in its endowment, and it’s lately distributed them to an array of causes. That includes local opera companies, but also ending affirmative action, contesting climate science, union busting and so-called election security.
Colin Jones: The Bradley Prize, which Guangcheng would be receiving along with a $250,000 stipend, is part of this larger project. Past winners include Jeb Bush, Fox News Roger Ailes and Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve. For Guangcheng to win a Bradley prize put him among a noted conservative cohort. I took my seat. As the event got underway, Richard Graber, Bradley’s president and CEO, gave an opening address with a slightly menacing edge.
[clip of Richard Graber]: Here at home, the battle for freedom is not fought over land, but over ideals. The attacks are not from a foreign enemy, but from within.
Colin Jones: After Richard the economist Glenn Loury, who was one of Guangcheng’s fellow Bradley Prize recipients that year, gave a speech decrying the post-BLM discourse on racism in America.
[clip of Glenn Loury]: The cultural barons and elites of America who run the human resource departments of corporate America, the universities, the movie studios these powerful people have bought into the woke anti-racism sensibility hook, line and sinker.
Colin Jones: Then came Guangcheng. A short video introduction played him onto the stage.
[voice over]: Chen Guangcheng was born in a village in Eastern China. When only an infant, he was struck by a serious fever so serious that it left him blind. Growing up—
Colin Jones: Guangcheng’s hair had gone salt and pepper since I’d last seen him at the Condé Nast gala, but he looked elated. After ten years living in the United States. He was able to give his speech in English. Reading off Braille notes he kept in front of him.
[clip of Chen Guangcheng]: On May 19th 2012, almost ten years ago, my family and I arrived in America.
Colin Jones: After a bit more self-introduction, Guangcheng moved on to his main subject, the Chinese Communist Party.
[clip of Chen Guangcheng]: The ultimate objectives of the CCP are to destroy universal values, civilized culture, and individual freedom of body and mind. The CCP wants to tear down the vast free market economy into social aspects, and its veneration of the Holy Spirit.
Colin Jones: One reason I had wanted to attend the Bradley Prizes was because it offered a chance to see Guangcheng in front of a conservative audience. I’d wanted to see how well he had fit in. And with these comments about the free market and the Holy Spirit. It certainly sounded as if he did. But then Guangcheng also said this.
[clip of Chen Guangcheng]: America holds that the hopes and dreams of humanity, the Constitution and the rule of law guarantee democracy, freedom, human rights and social justice.
Colin Jones: I seriously doubt that in that room full of some of America’s most prominent conservatives, there are many other people who would agree that the US Constitution guarantees social justice. But to be fair, I wasn’t entirely clear what Guangcheng meant by it either. In any case, it didn’t seem to bother the crowd much. They loved him. Guangcheng closed by telling us that we should embrace American exceptionalism, that the United States had to confront the CCP and that our country was the best hope the world had.
[clip of Chen Guangcheng]: Together, we will make miracles. Thank you.
Colin Jones: They gave him a standing ovation after the speeches and a panel discussion. A former Navy vocalist in a black sequined dress with a small back tattoo closed out the ceremony. [singing]
Yangyang Cheng: When I listen to the recordings from the Bradley event, this rendition of America the Beautiful stood out. It reminded me of performances of patriotic songs on Chinese state TV. The night revolved around this age old ideal of America and its greatness. How might a Chinese activist like Guangcheng fit into this narrative? After the ceremony. Colin brought this up with the Bradley Foundation’s CEO, Richard Graber.
Colin Jones: Is he the the first Chinese national to win the Bradley Prize?
[clip of Richard Graber]: Yes he is. Yes he is. And it’s a great story. You know, at a time when, people are questioning about what’s unique and exceptional about the United States, he kind of reinforced it tonight in his comments about what it meant to him to come to this country, land of hope and opportunity and just a beacon in the world. The United States does lead and should lead and should be proud of its heritage.
Yangyang Cheng: I think what Richard is saying is that Guangcheng’s story, or at least the part that the Bradley Foundation prefers to tell, corroborated Richard’s belief in American exceptionalism.
Colin Jones: When I spoke with other people there, I heard similar sentiments. America was right at the forefront of how they had understood Guangcheng’s speech. A woman named Sandy Cremers, who said she was Guangcheng’s friend, told me every American child needed to hear his message. That way, they could understand what it was like to fight for freedom rather than have it served up to them on a plate. Sandy went on to ascribe Guangcheng some impressive powers.
[clip of Sandy Cremers]: I was most excited by his use of the word Holy Spirit in his speech.
Colin Jones: Okay. Why?
[clip of Sandy Cremers]: Because it’s for his culture. There’s really no God right there’s, you know, religion is opioid for the masses. But even Guangcheng, we’ve talked about this at length. Even though he’s blind, he can sense truth. He knows he hears it. He can sense it. He’s searching for it. He knows there’s something beyond what we can see because he’s blind.
Colin Jones: What a difference ten years makes. I kept thinking this throughout the night. At the Condé Nast Traveler event, Guangcheng was applauded by Obama era liberals who wanted to believe that they were doing well by doing good. Tonight, his message was welcomed by a very different crowd. I had an idea of what they thought about Guangcheng, but I was dying to know what he made of the whole thing. And I still wanted to ask for an interview. I wasn’t quite sure how he’d react to the request, let alone our whole idea for this podcast. Finally, I got my chance to find out. Chen Laoshi? Wo Shi Colin. I went up to him and introduced myself. Yangyang had already messaged him on WhatsApp that I’d be at the event. I called him Chen Laoshi, just as she did in her texts. That literally means “teacher Chen,” but it’s more just like a term of respect. Guangcheng told me that he has been so happy in America the last ten years, and that getting this reward was an important indication that America accepts him and recognizes the work he’s done. After a little more small talk, I made my pitch. I mentioned that we were coming to another smaller event of his tomorrow, a ten year anniversary celebration at Catholic University. I asked if that might be a good time to interview him for the show. Neme, women mingtian yao qu ni de huodong.
[clip of Chen Guangcheng]: Dui.
Colin Jones: Zai Catholic Univeristy.
[clip of Chen Guangcheng]: Dui dui dui.
Colin Jones: Dangshi keyi—
[clip of Chen Guangcheng]: Keyi zuo caifang. Dui dui dui. Keyi zao yi dian guo qu, women zuo caifang.
Colin Jones: Hao hao hao. He said yes. That’s next. On Dissident at the Doorstep. Dissident at the Doorstep is an original podcast from Crooked Media. Our hosts are Alison Klayman, Yangyang Cheng and me, Colin Jones. From Crooked Media. Our executive producers are Tommy Vietor, Sarah Geismer and Katie Long, with special thanks to Mary Knauf and Alison Falzetta. Our senior producer is Maria Byrne and Meg Cramer. Maura Walz is our story editor. Our producer is Wudan Yan. Our associate producers are Boen Wang and Sydney Rapp. Translation by Valerie C, with additional translation by Yangyang Cheng and Richard Yeh. Voiceovers by Richard Yeh. Our fact checker is Tamika Adams. Sound design and mixing by Hannis Brown original score by Ilan Isakov and our podcast Art is by John Lee.