Taking a page from the "million hoodies" campaign in honor of shooting victim Trayvon Martin, China Aid created this show of support for Chen Guangcheng, who is blind, with hundreds of people donning sunglasses.
Updated at 9:13 a.m. ET: After the dramatic nighttime escape of Chen Guangcheng from house arrest in his Chinese village, one of the first people to know that the blind lawyer was safe in Beijing was thousands of miles away — in Midland, Texas.
Pastor Bob Fu, 44, says he knew of Chen’s escape three days before the security guards surrounding the house discovered it. He says he was among the first to receive and post a 15-minute video of Chen, made in hiding, appealing to Chinese President Wen Jiabao to bring to justice the local officials who illegally imprisoned him and his family for months. Fu says he also had a hand in preparing U.S. officials for Chen’s escape and arrival at the U.S. Embassy, while also helping lay the groundwork for alternatives, the details of which he says he cannot divulge.
Fu knows China’s security apparatus from personal experience. He made his own escape from China, arriving in the United States as a refugee with his wife and newborn son 16 years ago.
Now, through his Midland-based nonprofit China Aid, Fu is one of the leading voices on behalf of religious freedom in China, connected with activists in his home country and respected on Capitol Hill.
"Bob Fu is one of the most credible people you’ll ever find about what is going on in China," said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who chairs the Human Rights Subcommittee within the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. "He’s very well connected and knows people inside of China who are the agents of reform — people like Chen who (take action) because they want a better China."
According to tax documents, China Aid has raised several million dollars to fund legal counsel for "house church Christians," financial support for the families of jailed dissidents and publicity for human rights cases in China. In extreme cases, China Aid has helped fund "logistics" for an underground railway, Fu says.
In China, worship is allowed only in state-sanctioned churches, mosques and synagogues. Evangelizing outside those sites and worshipping in independent churches, often called "house churches," is prohibited.
Fu’s activism goes back to the Tiananmen protests of 1989, when he led a group of fellow students from Liaocheng University in Shandong province to join the massive rallies in the capital. After the crackdown on demonstrators he was one of many student activists required to attend special political study sessions and write self-criticism day after day. He worried that he would be forced to leave his hard-won position at the university.
U.S. relations with China are being put to the test over the fate of Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident who escaped from house arrest in China and is believed to be in the U.S. embassy or another safe site. NBC's Ian Williams reports.
During this time, Fu said, he read a book given to him by American missionaries who were teaching English in China. It was the story of a famous Chinese intellectual who was addicted to opium in the early 1900s, but was able to shake the drug after he converted to Christianity.
"I was really, really struck by the story," Fu said, in an interview with msnbc.com. "I came to the realization if you want to change China, the first thing you need to do is change people’s hearts. And if you want to change other people’s hearts, you first you have to change yourself."
Jerry Huang / AP
Bob Fu of the Texas-based rights group China Aid in Midland, Texas on Monday.
Fu and his wife, Heidi Cai, began holding underground worship services and Bible studies, he said. At the same time, he was teaching English at the Communist Party School in Beijing.
"I was God’s double-agent," he said, chuckling.
In 1996, they were arrested and held in jail for two months, and then placed under house arrest, Fu said. Then they received word that they soon would be jailed again, he said, in the “sweep” that preceded China’s Oct. 10 National Day.
By this time, Fu’s wife was pregnant with their first child, he said, but without the necessary permission from the government, which controls when a woman is allowed to have her one child. If she had been found out, she would be forced to have an abortion, Fu said.
So in the dark of night, Fu escaped through a second-story bathroom window and Cai left in disguise, he said. They fled to the countryside, Fu said, where they were protected by "house church brothers and sisters."
Fu said that with the shelter of this network, the help of a Christian policeman and travel documents obtained by a highly placed businessman, they were able to join a tour that went to Thailand and then Hong Kong, which was still under British control. Just three days before the territory was transferred to Chinese sovereignty, Fu and his wife were give refugee status, and flew to the United States.
Fu and Cai lived in a suburb of Philadelphia, where he started China Aid in his garage while attending Westminster Theological Seminary. They later moved to Midland, Texas, where they are raising their three children.
What prompted Fu to set up China Aid was a 2002 crackdown on a group of Christians in a house church in Hubei province that led to many arrests, among them five people who were sentenced to death, he said.
Fu and a group of contacts in the Christian, dissident and exile communities started publicizing the case and raising money, he said. Ultimately, Fu said, they used the funds to pay for 58 lawyers to defend the accused. They contacted the media, making the front page of The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Andrea Mitchell talks with Bob Fu, founder and president of China Aid, and Christopher Johnson, former China analyst with the CIA, about Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng's escape from house arrest under the Chinese government, and his current location in U.S. custody.
"That year, all the five death sentences were overturned," Fu said. "It was a major legal victory, and even the 'evil cult' charge was removed."
A group of activists who came of age as he did during the Tiananmen movement, are now human rights lawyers, many of them Christian, he said. Fu said he taps into this network, and links them to Washington by picking up the phone.
Fu compares himself and fellow human rights activists to "little ants" forcing "one case after another into courts, moving around and mobilizing and going through all the technical procedures" in place under China’s laws, but often not observed or even taken seriously by officials.
"We want to move the pile of dirt with 1 million ants," he said.
"I had never envisioned or wanted to establish (a nonprofit) like this," he said, but now that China Aid is nearly 10 years old, Fu is gratified by some success. "We can help the persecuted, and we did advance rule of law," he said.
China Aid is doggedly following and publicizing many human rights cases around China, Fu said.
"You can write to imprisoned Christians to encourage them and to let them know that you are praying for them," through China Aid, the website says.
Fu’s group also prints and distributes Bibles in China.
For Fu, the escape of Chen was a major triumph, but it also has generated new concerns — for the wife and daughter of Chen, and for those who helped get Chen to safety.
In an opinion piece published in the Washington Post on Monday, Fu calls out the bravery of one such supporter, He "Pearl" Peirong, who drove Chen the 300 miles to Beijing after he escaped over a compound wall in Shandong.
"I am awed by the courage of those who helped Chen escape. Pearl told me she is willing to die with Chen because he is such a 'pure-hearted courageous person'," Fu wrote. "I was talking to her last week when she said 'guobao laile,'— that state security had arrived."
More content from msnbc.com and NBC News:
- Teens hit by car -- while tanning on rural road
- Hiker beats hypothermia after 3 days lost in desert
- EPA official resigns over 'crucify' philosophy