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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In February 2009, British Parliamentarian Lord David Alton provided an update on the imprisoned blind activist. Alton and his colleague, Baroness Caroline Cox, had just returned from China where they met with Chen’s attorneys.  Alton reported that Chen was “gravely ill” and being denied medical treatment in prison. He told how Chen’s attorney, Li Fangping, a member of the Chinese Christian Rights Defense Association, had been assaulted and severely beaten when he traveled from Beijing to Linyi to meet with Chen at the time of Chen’s arrest. Li, who later participated in a pro-life demonstration in front of the U.S Supreme Court in October 2008, was also forcibly “disappeared,” tortured, and detained for five days in April 2011.

While Chen Guangcheng was in prison, his wife, Yuan Weijing, was rarely given permission to see him. During their 2009 visit she told Alton and Cox that Chen shared a cell with seven or eight other prisoners who were told not to speak to him. He survived mostly on bread and water, with an occasional vegetable. Chen’s attorneys told Alton that in spite of his physical condition, Chen was “very strong in his resolve” and would not give up. They said that if he would “recant his previous statements” he would be released “immediately.” But Chen refused to betray those families who have suffered through China’s one-child policy, and he refused to remain passive to the injustice he himself was facing.

On September 9, 2010, Chen finished his prison sentence and was sent home. He and his family were kept under heavy surveillance. In December 2010, LifeSiteNews quoted a report from Liberation, a French magazine, saying that Chen’s entire village of Dongshigu had been converted into a prison. Liberation’s China correspondent, Phillipe Grangerou, wrote that “The picturesque hamlet, situated close to a national highway, might resemble thousands of others in that part of the northeast of China,” but that no one “is authorized to enter Dongshigu, nor to communicate with its inhabitants.” Grangerou added that telephone lines were cut, surveillance cameras were placed around the perimeter, and the town was guarded by about “forty armed men dressed in military garb, who maintain a checkpoint for the few people permitted to come and go.”

Chen and Yuan are feistily defiant towards the Chinese Communist government. This is demonstrated in a smuggled out video China Aid received in February 2011. On the video Yuan showed how she piled cornstalks outside the window to make it more difficult for the officials to see in. “So they took a ladder and stand on it to keep watching now,” she said. Sure enough, a man’s face pops up above the cornstalks. Then the video shifts to Chen, who says, “In the twinkling of an eye, it is already over ten weeks since I walked from a small prison to this grand prison (house arrest).” He thanks both Chinese human rights lawyers and international activists for their support and provides details of the vast security team monitoring them. “Only my mother can go to get something for us to eat and stay alive,” he says. Chen accuses the officials of breaking the law and demands, “Can this Party Committee be above the law?”

Soon after the video surfaced, Yuan sent China Aid a letter telling how “led by the vice secretary of the Communist Party of Shuanghou Town, Zhang Jian and some National Security Policemen,” a group of 70-80 men beat and tortured them for more than two hours. “More than 10 men covered me totally with a blanket and kicked my ribs and all over my body,” she wrote. Chen was also beaten unmercifully. Meanwhile, other men plundered the house and confiscated their computer, video camera, tape recorder, all of their battery chargers, and even flashlights. The officials confiscated toys and books from their five year-old daughter, Kesi. In her own words Kesi lamented, “I am such a girl to be pitied. They robbed everything from me.”

It was from this difficult existence that Chen sought to deliver his family. But after his escape was revealed, trouble began. On April 27, The Guardianreported the detention of He “Pearl” Peirong, the woman who helped Chen escape and drove him to safety. According to Bob Fu, she was under arrest in an undisclosed location and her blog had been erased. In a Washington Post opinion editorial, Fu said that Pearl told him “she is willing to die with Chen because he is such a ‘pure-hearted courageous person.’”

On May 2, Chen left the U.S. Embassy for a Beijing hospital. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner assured Bob Fu that the U.S. remained committed to Chen’s family’s safety and freedom and that the agreement reached by both governments would ensure “Chen’s work, function and legal advocacy can be maintained.” But Fu also received reports telling of the threats to Chen’s family if he did not accept the Chinese government’s offer. Security officials had tied Yuan to a chair for two days and threatened her. On May 10, Chen told Reuters that Chinese officials were launching “crazed reprisals” on his family. Chen’s nephew, Chen Kegui, had been arrested and charged with “intentional homicide,” for defending his parents when officials broke into their house in the middle of the night following Chen’s escape.

The Guardian on April 27 quoted Human Rights Watch’s Sophie Richardson declaring, “None of these people will have gone into it without a pretty clear idea of what might happen to them as a result. That shows extraordinary courage on the part of activists who are extremely vulnerable to exactly these kinds of reprisals … In my view, the least other governments can do is stand with them.” Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney agrees. Romneyurged that President Obama should “take every measure” to protect Chen. “Our country must play a strong role in urging reform in China and supporting those fighting for the freedoms we enjoy,” Romney said in a public statement.

On May 4 a State Department press release announced that the Chinese government said that Chen Guangcheng had “the same right to travel abroad as any other citizen of China.” The statement said Chen had been offered a fellowship at an American university and that they understood that China would approve his request to leave. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) warned “U.S. officials made a mistake by escorting Chen away from the safety of the U.S. embassy and into an uncertain fate. To avoid another harmful error, the State Department must press China to carry out its commitments. We cannot assume that this saga has been resolved.” But thanks, it seems, to the May 15 hearing, resolving it may be. Less than 24 hours after the hearing Chinese officials brought travel application forms to Chen’s hospital room and collected passport fees for the couple and their two children. Bob Fu reported that Chen was told that passports would be issued in 15 days. He looks forward to the Chen family’s coming to America.

When Chen Guangcheng does indeed arrive in America, the U.S. government may look forward to further disturbance. Chen will no more be silent about the issues of forced abortion and sterilization in China while in America than he was in China. He and his family will probably participate in the same sort of pro-life events that his former lawyer, Li Fangping, did during his short visit to the United States. The Chens may cause some people to rethink long held convictions. Some disturbances are good for the soul.

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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!