Chen Guangcheng: An Inconvenient Activist

Faith J. H. McDonnell directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).


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Chen Guangcheng has never lacked courage. Until his daring Sunday, April 22nd escape from house arrest was announced to the world, the 41-year-old blind Chinese activist was not well known in the West except to China-watchers and human rights activists. But those who regard Chen as a hero range from peasants in his home province of Shandong to other celebrated Chinese dissidents. Members of Congress and the British Parliament knew of Chen’s bravery long before he climbed over the back wall of his home in the dead of night and began a journey which he trusts will eventually lead to freedom.

The Obama Administration is just beginning to reckon with this courageous man. Although Chen was pressured out of the Embassy, at suggestions that his wife would be beaten to death, and his extended family would suffer, his trust in the Americans had already created a diplomatic nightmare for the Obama Administration. They have been reticent in their remarks on Chen Guangcheng.

On the other hand, members of Congress have been vocal in their support for Chen. In the past three weeks, Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights Chair Christopher Smith (R-NJ) has held two hearings on Chen. Remarkably, Chen has phoned in and made statements at both the Congressional-Executive Commission on China hearing on May 3 and the Subcommittee hearing on May 15.

At the May 3 hearing, U.S. Representative Frank R. Wolf (R-VA) declared, “The most generous read of the administration’s handling of this case is that it was naïve in accepting assurances from a government that has a well-known and documented history of brutally repressing its own people under this government.” Witness Michael Horowitz, Hudson Institute Senior Fellow, remarked that one of the “great things we could do for the pursuit of American interests” would be to “replace the State Department with the AFLCIO.” “This is an issue of bargaining,” said Horowitz. “Anybody at the Teamsters Union would have flunked every one of these people who were bargaining for the life and freedom of such a world hero.”

Women’s Rights Without Frontiers’ President Reggie Littlejohn stressed the underlying issue that set the Chinese Communist government against Chen and that has been left out of much of the discussion in the mainstream media: “he was the one person in China who dared to stand up against the One Child policy.” Not many in the media or the Administration were eager to reveal that Chen’s crime was exposing the brutal practices of forced abortion and sterilization of Chinese women, and the “gendercide” practiced against baby girls. Surely, part of the Obama Administration’s uneasiness over Chen stems from the awkwardness of defending an anti-abortion activist. Vice President Joe Biden has even defended the One Child policy.

Chen is called a “barefoot lawyer,” because he provides free legal services but has no law degree. The blind were previously denied college admission in China, so Chen, who has been blind since childhood, was only permitted to audit classes. He started giving legal advice to disabled people in his home province of Shangdong, Dongshigu Village, in 1996. But in 2005, his activism shook the entire country and beyond. Chen went from village to village in Shandong Province collecting testimonies of tens of thousands of women who had been rounded up and forced to be sterilized or have abortions, even in the eighth month of pregnancy. Neither Chen’s blindness nor his lack of a degree prevented him from exposing some 130,000 forced abortions that took place in one year in that one province and filing class-action lawsuits on behalf of the victimized families.

Chen presented his findings in a class-action lawsuit against the Lin Yi City bureau of the Family Planning Commission. He also exposed this hidden horror to major international media when he traveled to Beijing in June 2005 to file a lawsuit there.  A year later, Chen was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2006. In her tribute, journalist Hannah Beech said, “He may have lost his sight as a child, but Chen Guangcheng’s legal vision has helped illuminate the plight of thousands of Chinese villagers.”

In September 2005, Chen was placed under house arrest by Lin Yi City officials. Beech related, “three hours after meeting with Time in Beijing to discuss the issue, Chen was shoved into an unmarked vehicle by public-security agents from his hometown. They bundled him back to his village, where he was held under house arrest for months.” In March 2006, he was removed from home and taken to detention. At his trial in August 2006 he was sentenced to four years and three months’ detention on trumped-up charges of “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic.” Chen’s attorneys, some of the most well-known Christian human rights attorneys in China, were also subjected to abuse of various forms for their defense of Chen Guangcheng.

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  • Mary Wilson

    USA should help its own citizen illegally blocked in China for 4 years come home!!! https://www.change.org/petitions/help-my-father-d

    • mrbean

      Have you written the Secretary of State to Hillary Clinton intervene because this is an American citizen of some stature? Probably won't even get a reply. You may have to wait until Romney is President to because this Obama Clinton crowd are bungling inept closet communists with their lips pressed upon chinese buttocks.

  • Ghostwriter

    Well,looks like President Obama's going to hand his opponents another club of which to beat him with. And it may be well-deserved. He's going to look like a fool if he bungles this and most likely,he will.

  • wctaqiyya

    I have a question. What do you think would happen to a right to life agitator who provided 'legal advice' to pregnant girls who had scheduled or were thinking about getting an abortion in this country? When was the last time a right to life activist was allowed to speak at a public school? Because nobody can 'interfere' with free access to planned parenthood clinics upon pain of arrest, I'm assuming something bad would happen to the individual who presumed to give legal advice and/or otherwise tried to convince girls not to get an abortion. There's that whole practicing law without a permit thing also. Could it be that Chen would be 'persecuted' in America for his actions? Just wondering.

  • topeka

    Wow… as my grandmother would say, this guy, his family, his friends, and his co-activists are earning their crowns in Heaven…

    Hopefully none of them will meet a blood martyrdom.

    God Bless 'em!