"The courageous blind peasant defender of rights," the China Youth Daily, the newspaper of the Communist Youth League, called him in a 1994 article. "Thirty-three-year-old Chen Guangcheng is blind. But farmers from all over the area come to him to make decisions in any case of infringement or other disputes."
He went to the United States on a State Department program, during which he talked about his ambition to attend law school and met Cohen, the law professor who became a staunch advocate for Chen. "He is an extraordinary person with a charismatic personality," Cohen said in an interview in 2006. "You are moved by his emotion to try to improve the legal system and human rights."
His resolve was soon tested.
In 2005, Chen and his wife Yuan Weijing documented complaints about forced abortions and sterilization used to enforce a family planning campaign run by Linyi, the city that oversees Dongshigu. Among the cases were several women who said they were forced to have abortions within days of their due dates.
Officials often resort to such illegal measures to enforce policies that limit families to one or two children, fearing that they will otherwise fail to meet national population targets and derail their chances for promotion. An investigation by the national family planning commission later validated Chen's claims, and said that some local officials had been punished for their wrongdoing.
The affair set local leaders against Chen.
He and his family were confined to their home and repeatedly beaten by people he and his wife have said were hired by the local government. When activist lawyers from Beijing tried to see them, they too were beaten and chased away.
In 2006 he was put on trial and sentenced to four years in prison for "damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic" — charges that apparently stemmed from the confrontation between supporters and those enforcing his house arrest.
After his release, he still wasn't free. His house arrest continued, enforced by surveillance cameras and teams of hired locals who guarded his house and the streets into the village. Activists, diplomats, foreign media and Hollywood actor Christian Bale all tried to break the security cordon only to be chased away.
Chen's video last week listed some of the indignities his family suffered: His six-year-old daughter is followed to school, her bag ransacked to make sure she's not carrying anything. The precaution seemed a response to Chen's daring. In February 2011 he surreptitiously recorded a video detailing his house arrest. "I have come out of a small jail and walked into a bigger jail," Chen said in the video.
His perseverance and mistreatment, however, spread Chen's reputation further. "America will continue to speak out and to press China when it censors bloggers and imprisons activists," Secretary of State Clinton said in a speech last year, "and when some, like Chen Guangcheng, are persecuted even after they are released."
Now in U.S. protection, Chen faces a dilemma. His supporters say he wants to stay in China and live with his family in safety, rather than go abroad. Yet it's far from certain Beijing is able or willing to guarantee their safety, unless they take U.S. sanctuary.
Chen also struck a measured note of defiance in last week's video message while asking Premier Wen Jiabao to investigate his family's treatment: "If anything more happens to my family, I will continue to pursue justice."