Chen's predicament — his improbable flight to hoped-for freedom — has thrilled the many Chinese who are savvy enough to get around Internet censorship to learn about it. And it has reaffirmed for his supporters the qualities they have long admired: Chen displays a determination for upholding the law while exuding a charisma that reassures those around him.
"He's just the most extraordinary person," said activist blogger He Peirong on Friday, four days after she picked up a bloodied Chen outside his village and sped toward Beijing and shortly before she was detained by police for helping him.
"He never gives up. He's very spirited, willful and optimistic," she said.
His principled steeliness was on display in a video statement recorded while he was in hiding last week. In it, he calmly catalogs the mistreatment of him, his wife, daughter and mother while under house arrest. He names the officials who took part in the abuse and then demands an investigation and the protection of his family members, whose whereabouts are not known.
"I also ask that the Chinese government safeguard the dignity of law and the interests of the people as well as guarantee the safety of my family members," said Chen.
The 40-year-old Chen is emblematic of a new breed of activists that the Communist Party finds threatening. Often from rural and working class families, these "rights defenders," as they are called, are unlike the students and intellectuals from the elite academies and major cities who led the Tiananmen Square democracy movement.
The backgrounds of these new activists have helped them tap into the simmering grievances about a rich-poor gap, farmland expropriations, corruption and unbridled official power that are fueling the 180,000 protests that experts estimate rock China every year.