WASHINGTON – When Bob Fu’s cellphone rang halfway through a congressional hearing concerning detained Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, all the west Texas pastor had to do was gesture for the congressman in charge, Rep. Christopher H. Smith, to disappear with him into a nearby room.
Soon after, Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, returned with a stunning announcement: “Bob Fu has made contact with Chen Guangcheng in his hospital room.”
Smith invited Fu to the dais, where Fu knelt next to the congressman, put Chen on speakerphone from Beijing and translated: “I want to make the request to have my freedom of travel guaranteed.”
Fu’s role at Thursday’s hearing was the most striking example of how the founder of a once-obscure evangelical group has emerged as a key contact for some U.S. officials in the controversy surrounding Chen, the blind activist whose status has strained U.S.-China relations.
Fu spoke with Chen before and after his dramatic escape from house arrest to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on April 22, and his efforts helped prompt the congressional hearing on Chen’s case.
Fu, 44, a father of three, knows from experience the pressure Chen faces.
During the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, Fu led a group of fellow students from Liaocheng University in Shandong. That same year, he became a Christian and held worship services at a secret “house church” with help from his wife, Heidi.
Meanwhile, Fu taught English at a Communist Party school in Beijing. He called himself “God’s double-agent.”
In 1996, the couple were jailed for two months, then placed under house arrest, Fu said. His wife was pregnant with their first child – without the necessary government permission under China’s one-child policy.
Fearing she might be forced to have an abortion, they fled to Hong Kong, where their son was born.
A year later they moved to Philadelphia, where Fu graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary. In 2002, the couple started the nonprofit ChinaAid Association in their garage. Two years later they became U.S. citizens and moved to Midland in west Texas.
Midland – an oil town best known as the childhood home of George W. Bush and his wife, Laura – was a hotbed of evangelical social action, with “Midlanders” capitalizing on their association with the Bushes to bring attention to the struggle of Christians worldwide, from Southern Sudan to North Korea.
Fu said the ChinaAid Association now has more than half a dozen staffers; offices in Midland, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles; and a budget of $1.5 million, much of it raised from local donors in the Bushes’ Bible Belt hometown.
Fu also said there’s a staff of several dozen in China, an underground network that supports the families of political prisoners, and provides legal training and assistance.
On rare occasions, Fu said, this network has helped persecuted citizens escape the country.
“Of course, I couldn’t reveal who they are,” Fu said.
He also has emerged as a conduit of information.
“As long as I have known Bob, he has had a network in China that is very surprising,” said Deborah Fikes, Dallas-based executive adviser to the World Evangelical Alliance, adding, “I’ve spent a lot of time with him and he is constantly getting calls from people saying, ‘We’ve heard about you and what you’re doing’ and they tell him their stories.”
Smith said he trusted Fu’s interpretation of the Chen situation and invited him to Thursday’s emergency hearing to learn more. “We have relied on the accuracy of his information time and time again,” Smith said.