Chen Guangchen – the courageous blind man who sees with clear sight that which the world has failed to see
Chen Guangcheng is the blind self-taught human rights lawyer who has opened the eyes of the world to China’s one child policy. Chen has courageously exposed egregious violations of human rights which for decades world leaders have chosen not to see and which western governments have aided and abetted.
That Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been drawn into the dramatic events surrounding Chen over the past fortnight – his escape from house arrest, his temporary sanctuary in the American embassy in Beijing, his subsequent transfer to a Chinese hospital, and accusations that he has been betrayed as Hilary Clinton left beijing without him - only underlines Chen’s extraordinary story.
As these events were unfolding Secretary Clinton was due to arrive in Beijing and she must have been reflecting on the remarks she had made in the same city, in 1995, at the fourth Women’s Conference that “women’s rights are human rights” – a conference of political elites, notoriously marked by the absence of a single Chinese woman who had suffered under the one-child policy; a policy not even alluded to during its deliberations.
Be clear, the one child policy makes it a criminal offence to be pregnant; it is a policy which makes it illegal to have a brother or a sister.
It is a policy which has led to an estimated 400 million babies being aborted or killed through infanticide; a gendercide policy which favours the birth of male children so that one out of every six girls is aborted or abandoned – leading to some 40 million “missing” women.
It is a policy which has skewed China’s population balance. The Economist reported that in one province, Guangdong, there were 119 male babies for every 100 girls. Ten years earlier, the ratio was a shocking 130.”
The policy has also distorted the balance between young, middle-aged and elderly people with catastrophic social repercussions. Sex trafficking and crime has proliferated; women have become commodities; trafficking leads to the sale of girls as child brides. Little wonder, then that according to World Health Organisation statistics, China is the only country in the world where more women commit suicide than men.
500 women take their own lives every single day .
What was the Clinton slogan? – “women’s rights are human rights.”
Despite knowing about the nature of these policies one of President Obama’s first acts on coming to office was to reverse the 2001 decision to withhold US funding from the United Nations Population Association (UNFPA) and to immediately pledge $50 million. For decades, and without a break, Britain has been doing the same, with the support of all three political parties – unctuously saying it doesn’t support coercion while it has poured millions of pounds into the UNFPA and International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).
I have campaigned against this policy since the 1980s – and both in the Commons and the Lords have initiated debates; tabled questions; moved an amendment calling for the ending of such financial support; and seen Ministers and Secretaries of State – in one case being sworn at by a Cabinet Minister for my trouble.
The meeting turned sour after I pointed out that the Chinese Population Association (CPA) is a full member of IPPF and that like UNFPA who had channelled funds into the CPA which would have been better used for development and the relief of poverty.
In 1994, in a Commons debate I said: “I am utterly mystified as to how anyone could watch Channel Four’s, “The Dying Rooms”, or last year’s BBC programme, “Women of the Yellow Earth”, and still offer a defence of the payment of £100 million of blood money over the past decade.”
“The Dying Rooms” followed BBC2’s “Women of the Yellow Earth”. Both highlighted how forced abortion, forced sterilisation and the forcible fitting of IUCDs for women had been commonplace in China since the one-child policy was introduced in 1980.
Brian Woods, the director of “The Dying Rooms” wrote about his harrowing visit to a number of orphanages in China at that time. He said:
“Every single baby in this orphanage was a girl … the only boys were mentally or physically disabled. 95 per cent of the babies we saw were able-bodied girls”.
He also said:
“The most shocking orphanage we visited lay, ironically, just twenty minutes from one of the five star international hotels that herald China’s emergence from economic isolation”.
Successive British Governments repeatedly say they do not support coercion while the CPA officials say their declared aim is to “implement government population policies”. Quin Zinzhong, a Minister who oversaw that policy, said:
“The size of the family is far too important to be left to the couple. Births are a matter of state planning”.
In one province the slogan,“It is better to have more graves than one more child”,has been used.
In Parliament I cited Mrs.Gao Xiao Duan, one of the officials who ran a centre for forced abortions. She wept as she recalled when “a baby of nine months gestation” – born above the permitted quota “had poison injected into its skull and the child died and was thrown into a trash can.”
I cited Amnesty International’s report of a baby born, above the permitted quotas, drowned at birth in Hebei Province and The Sunday Times report of a man tortured to death in Hunan after refusing to reveal the whereabouts of his pregnant wife. Jin Yani was nine months pregnant when five officials pinned her to her bed and injected her with saline solution. The loss of blood nearly killed her – and, terrified, she went into hiding.
Harry Wu, the human rights activist who was imprisoned in China for many years, described the realities on the ground:
“In Communist China, grassroots PBP cadres”–that is, planned birth policy cadres–“are stationed in every village. Those communist party and government cadres are the most immediate tools for dominating the people … They must watch every woman in the village, their duty being to promptly force women violators to undergo sterilization and abortion surgeries … PBP is targeted against every woman, every family”.
And what have the international agencies had to say? The former executive director of the UNFPA, Nafis Sadiq, remarked:
“China has every reason to feel proud and pleased with its remarkable achievements in family planning policy . . . Now China could offer its experiences and special experts to other countries
It was against this background that I was, therefore, deeply moved in 2005 to read the story of Chen Guangchen, who had been arrested after attempting to file a class action suit on behalf of women in China’s Shandong province.
I have campaigned for Chen ever since he was arrested in 2005, regularly raising his case in Parliament and with Ministers.
Two years ago, while Chen was still in prison, I met with Chen’s lawyers in Beijing and spoke to his wife by telephone. In 2009 at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, I met with China’s Special Representative on Human Rights, Dr Shen Yongxiang and among issues I raised was the case of Chen Guang Chen, whom I told him would one day be regarded as a national hero.
The chronology of events leading to Chen’s incarceration began in March 2005 when he learned from villagers that officials in Linyi, a city in Shandong province, had subjected thousands of people trying to evade restrictive population control laws to late-term forced abortions, midnight raids, beatings and compulsory sterilization.
Chen, a self taught or “barefoot lawyer”, then began his own investigation into the allegations.
In June 2005, he filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of 130,000 women who suffered forced abortions and sterilizations lawsuit in Shandong, and travelled to Beijing to discuss the case with legal scholars, lawyers and foreign journalists. Soon after, the lawsuit was rejected.
Then, in August 2005, local officials imprisoned Chen and his immediate family in their home and shut off all outside communication. In September Chen escaped but was apprehended in Beijing and returned to Linyi. When he tried again to escape in October, local authorities failed to protect him against beatings by civilians apparently working in connection with the police to help enforce his isolation.
On June 21, the Yinan County People’s Procuratorate approved Chen’s arrest.
That same day, Chen’s lawyers, Li Jinsong and Zhang Lihui, were able to visit him, but from then on, authorities escalated the pressure to deny access to defence witnesses and materials for all the lawyers and activists involved. Next, police officers took lawyer Li in for questioning. Unknown assailants beat three other lawyers defending villagers jailed for supporting Chen – one of whom I have met. He said he had been left for dead. Police officers first looked on as the cameras of the villagers’ lawyers were smashed, then took them in for questioning.
When Li Jinsong and Li Subin, another member of Chen’s legal team, tried to visit Chen’s wife on June 23, they were stopped and beaten by guards. The following day, all the lawyers involved returned to Beijing. Li Jinsong and Li Subin tried returning to Shandong on June 27, only to be harassed again while the police again stood by. Some 20 men overturned the lawyers’ car and police took Li Jinsong in for questioning once again.
Chen was brought before a Star Chamber and imprisoned four years on the trumped up charge of obstructing traffic and damaging a police vehicle.
Of the charade of a legal process Sophie Richardson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch said:
“When Chen tried to make proper use of China’s legal system, the response wasn’t due process. It was house arrest, physical abuse, and then ‘disappearance’ by local authorities. His case is a textbook example of how little the rule of law really means in China.”
I asked Dr.Shen whether China’s Government truly believed that a blind man could have inflicted such damage on the combined might of the Republic of China’s law enforcement agencies: damage such as to warrant four years in prison.
Damage? No. Danger? yes.
Time magazine understood the effect of Chen’s bravery when, in 2006, they named him as one of 100 most influential men in the world.
In prison, Chen was tortured and denied medical treatment. When I met his lawyers in Beijing they told me that he had been put in a cell with eighteen other prisoners. Those inmates were told not to converse or make contact with Chen.
Chen was also denied medical treatment and for many months his wife was prevented from visiting him. If he had been willing to withdraw his complaints and repent, Chen could have secured early release, but this extraordinary principled and courageous man refused to be cowed or to recant.
After his release in 2010 he was kept under house arrest, along with his wife and six-year-old daughter. Guards constantly harassed them. A strictly enforced decision was made by the Shandong authorities to put his home out of bounds to visitors. No one was then permitted to speak to Chen or visit him. He and his wife were been confined to their quarters and only his seventy six year-old mother-in-law has been allowed to enter and leave, bringing occasional provisions.
That all changed when a video was smuggled out of his home. In the recording – which was secreted beyond China thanks to a Chinese official who is outraged by Chen’s treatment and was made available on You Tube, and seen by millions – Chen detailed his degrading treatment and appalling denial of his basic human rights. At the end of the You Tube video Chen says “We the sons and daughters of our great nation should have the courage to defeat our own fears.”
Referring to his transfer from the Shandong jail to his home he said:
“I was in a small prison and now I am in a larger prison.”
Twenty two agents constantly monitored him and devices were installed in adjacent properties to jam his mobile phone signal. Their home was under constant surveillance – by 66 security officials.
A local source told news agencies that “They cannot move from bed, and they have not been allowed to go to hospital.”
Chen’s house arrest finally came to an end last month when He Peirong, better known by her screen name Pearl, assisted Chen’s escape.
In what seemed like a scene from The Shawshank Redemption, Chen literally climbed over a wall, took to his heels and despite falling into a river and taking numerous wrong turns navigated himself to where He Peirong was waiting for him – and she drove him for eight hours to Beijing. She has since been arrested. Shawshank has been placed on the list of words censored from internet searches. And have a though for Chen’s wife and family. His wife, Mrs Yuan, once remarked: “I tell you, the darkness of the society is way beyond your imagination.”
China is a huge country and it would be wrong to assume that the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, or senior officials approve of the barbarism of regional Communist Party officials. But, equally, their failure to take action against those responsible and ignore the issues raised by Chen Guangchen they will inevitably damage China’s reputation.
Chinese people are some of the most cultivated people in the world, and there is much about today’s China which fills me with deep admiration, but the treatment of Chen and his wife and the behaviour of its provincial officials underlines the continuing challenge of matching extraordinary economic progress with the enhancement and protection of human rights.
Chen’s case is uncomfortable for China and the West – especially for Hillary Clinton and Brack Obama in the run up to an election. But it is a time of change for China as well. The US election will coincide with China’s 8th Communist Party Congress when Vice President Xi Jinping will succeed Hu Jintao.
Even if a formula is now found to allow him to travel abroad with his family – perhaps to study – and which would at least show welcome compassion – this remarkable Shawshank has caught the public imagination and blown open a policy of coercion and eugenics. It also exposes the shameful collaborative role played by America and Britain in aiding and abetting the heinous violations of human rights which Chen has set himself against. And it has taken a blind man to see that to which we have shamefully closed our eyes.
See Ann Farmer’s blog: