Where is Chen Guangcheng now?

I met Chen Guangcheng this week. I can’t quite believe it. It’s not something I ever thought I’d be able to say.

I felt a bit odd, knowing that about a year ago I’d been parked outside the Chinese embassy in central London with some of my colleagues, all of us wearing masks with Chen’s face on.

Amnesty UK Chen Guangcheng demo Aril 2012

At that time, Chen had successfully escaped his illegal house arrest and was on the run from the Chinese authorities. A feat which, considering he’s blind and his house was patrolled by about a hundred guards at the time, is near-miraculous, and certainly more Die Hard than most Amnesty cases. The fact that he broke his foot climbing the large wall barricading him in, then crawled across the fields, turning up at the American Embassy in Beijing days later, gives a bit of insight into his determination.

While we were outside the Embassy asking them to the authorities to guarantee Chen's safety, with thousands of you sending texts and emails with the same message, he was being held in a Beijing hospital. We collected audio messages of support from people around the world to show solidarity with him. When he was imprisoned in 2006, and later held under house arrest, Amnesty had named Chen a prisoner of conscience, punished for his political activism and defence of human rights – and continually called on the authorities in China to release him. And on Monday he was sat in front of me in London.

Chen was here to collect the first ever Westminster Award for Human Life, Human Rights and Human Dignity, presented to him in Westminster by Fiona Bruce MP. Chen’s lifelong dedication to defending the rights (and lives) of women facing forced sterilisation and violent, enforced abortion by the Chinese state can only be described as heroic.

A self-taught lawyer from a tiny village in Shandong Province, Chen has continued to endanger his life and sacrifice his own freedoms in his mission to tell the world about human rights abuses being committed by the Chinese Government.

China’s programme of forced sterilisation and abortion

“It’s existed for a long time, but is not known to the outside world.”

Chen is intent on exposing the brutal measures he has seen provincial authorities in China go to in order to maintain the strict population cap, through forced sterilisation of women, and forced abortion – sometimes right up until the woman is due to give birth. He talked about a dead foetus laid by authorities on a woman’s hospital bed where she thought she’d be giving birth, the body left ‘as a warning’, placenta still attached.

According to his research, Chen claims that during 2005 alone, somewhere between 120,000 and 130,000 forced sterilisations were carried out by authorities in the nearby city of Linyi. In one year. It’s institutional.

“Any Government Official rejecting the one child policy will not be promoted despite good work elsewhere. Therefore all Communist Party officials will do all they can to implement the one child policy. There is no legal limitation on how to implement it.”

Authorities enforcing the terminations and sterilisations aren’t answerable to the law; no cases are brought before the courts. In fact, it’s the women themselves that bear the most brutal punishments, along with their families.

Chen: “Pregnant women go into hiding. But their family – all of them – parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, extended family – the entire family is arrested and taken to a family planning clinic, where they are tortured for months.

"Within six months in 2005, 600,000 family members of these 120 -130,000 forced abortions were tortured.

“All over China, many many Chinese citizens are being tortured, sent to re-education camps, disappearing.”

No dignity, no rights

The methods to maintain a low birth rate are cruel. There is no respect for human life. Chen places the blame with the brutalising and dehumanising regime of the ruling Communist Party: “In China, the government is just a tool fully controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. The Party is above the law; they’re not being held accountable to anyone.”

And this system, he says, has eaten away at the core respect for human rights, human dignity and eventually human life. “The Chinese Communist Party has enslaved Chinese citizens” – “The nature of the dictatorship is the destruction of human life.”

Through his translator Bob (another amazing individual! Bob was a student leader at Tiananmen Square, founded NGO China Aid and has supported Chen’s work throughout), Chen spoke emotionally about the case of a toddler whose mother was detained by police. The three-year-old child was left home alone, despite her mother begging to be allowed to tell someone to look after the child.

The police ignored her requests, locked the child in the house and later walked the mother past the house on her way from the police station to the detention centre. Weeks later, the neighbours smelled the body and broke in to the house. The child’s fingers were broken from scratching at the iron bars to open the door. She’d starved to death.

When Chen recounted the story, tears streamed under his glasses and down his face. He paused for a while, and eventually said, “Every time I mention this story, it always hurts. I really don’t want to recall this story.”

The sheer disregard for an innocent child’s life is clearly still painful for Chen. Bob held his arm in support.

The UK Government is failing to hold China to account

This week, Chen Guangcheng has popped up in the media with his criticism of European countries failing to hold China to account over its appalling human rights record. When I saw him, he was critical of the UK Government for putting their business interests above human rights. “You are not able to resist the business orders when you face the fascism and state in China today… Human rights are universal; if we compromise human rights, we compromise everything. At the moment, the UK doesn’t do enough.”

He strongly believes that state leaders have a duty to hold back on trade until China adheres to international human rights law:

“Facing the brutality of the regime and force, democratic countries have weakened their stance on human rights by putting trade as their priority, always trade, trade, trade. In the matter of human rights, democratic countries discuss the issue behind closed doors. They don’t care about human dignity and human rights. For states not liked by the Chinese Government, the Communist Party will use the economic hammer, and the democratic countries will retreat. It’s very irresponsible and damages fundamental interests of our own people.”

Protests in China

Artist Ai Wei Wei wears a 'free Chen GUangcheng' t-shirtDespite the oppression, Chen believes there’s an appetite for change:Chinese citizens are waking up rapidly. There is a foundation set for change in the globalised information age; impact spreads across the world.” He claims the extent of various recent anti-government protests in China are quietened to the outside world; he seems genuinely hopeful for change from the next generation of Chinese citizens.

And internationally recognised figures like Chen and Ai Wei Wei (who, after the Gangnam episode, yesterday released a venture in heavy metal activism) certainly get media attention.

What you can do

I can’t believe Chen was in London. But he seemed totally unfazed to be here. He did point out that he was able to be here largely through the persistence of campaigners around the world and a network of support of fellow human rights defenders in China. He said a few times “As long as we stick together and are persistent, nothing can stop us.” His determination alone is a wonder!

His message to people in the UK? “We shouldn’t be indifferent or silent when people are committing crimes in front of us. Have dialogue with the Chinese people, not with the dictators.”

I’m just glad there are Chen Guangchengs in this world. He mentioned with indifference that that morning a senior figure in the Chinese Government had expressed regret in a newspaper that he hadn’t had Chen beaten to death.

When he was asked why the UK doesn’t do more to criticise China’s human rights record, he replied, “UK Government officials are very scared of the anger of Chinese Government officials. But I’m not afraid of the Chinese Government.”

What do you say to that?! ‘Jai you!’

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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