TORONTO — As Chinese and U.S. diplomats sought a resolution to the diplomatic crisis surrounding Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, many Chinese-Americans turned their attention to the nature of Chen’s dissent.
Without challenging any fundamental tenet of China’s constitution or its 1949 revolution, Chen has focused attention to the country’s forced abortion and sterilization practices, leading to a crackdown by the government on his movement and prohibitions on contact with foreigners and the media.
The prominence of the self-taught, blind lawyer rose when he escaped from house arrest in Shandong province April 22 and arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing several days later. As Chen went from the embassy to a hospital, the U.S. sought assurances that he would be released from house arrest and that he and his family would not be harmed. Chen told reporters police were in his home waving clubs in front of his wife.
China has accused the U.S. of meddling in the country’s internal affairs.
“Chen Guangcheng is not just a dissident. In fact, he did not even advocate against the central government. He is a folk hero in China,” Chai Ling, founder and president of All Girls Allowed, told a U.S. Congressional hearing in Washington May 3.
“He’s a defender of women, children and the poor. Chen has worked tirelessly on behalf of women who face forced abortion and sterilization at the hands of officials who should be protecting their citizens’ rights,” said Chai, whose organization campaigns to defend women facing forced abortions in China.
In 2005, Chen organized a class-action lawsuit that accused city officials in Linyi, Shandong province, of illegally forcing women to undergo abortions as a means of enforcing China’s one-child policy. Chen was arrested after filing the lawsuit. He eventually served four years in prison for “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic” during a demonstration against the practice.
When his sentence ended in 2010, Chinese officials considered him unrepentant and likely to reoffend, so they kept him under soft arrest, a system of intense police scrutiny that kept him trapped in his house and away from the media and foreigners.
Chen still represents an intolerable threat to China’s government, said Jesuit Father John Meehan, an expert on China and a faculty member at Campion College at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan.
“By calling attention to the abortion practices of the Chinese regime, Chen has embarrassed Chinese officials in the eyes of the nation and the world,” Father Meehan said in an email to The Catholic Register, a national Catholic weekly based in Toronto. “At this stage, Chinese officials are unlikely to let him go free.”
Many Chinese have begun to question the necessity and wisdom of the one-child policy, he said.
“The one-child policy has been undermined in recent years by various forces,” Father Meehan explained. “For one, it was not fully applied to rural areas or ethnic minorities. But as China develops, it is beginning to demonstrate low birth rates as found in most developed countries. As China’s birth rate declines, the regime may no longer use the one-child policy to curb population growth. Moreover, China will begin to face a rapidly aging population, much like developed Asian nations.”
The policy amounts to a kind of war on baby girls, according to Chai, a Boston-area entrepreneur who first came to prominence as a student leader during Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Her organization claims one out of every six Chinese girls is aborted, killed or abandoned at birth because of Chinese cultural preference for male children.
Chai also claimed as many as 35,000 women in China are coerced into abortion every day. The practice amounts to “brutal control over women and children and the whole nation,” she said.
“He (Chen) is one of the few people who has the courage to stand up and speak for the women and children. They (government officials) don’t want their authority, their brutal policy to be challenged,” Chai added.
“It’s a shame for the rest of the world to have ignored this policy for this long,” she said. “It’s a shame for world leaders to have tolerated this policy for so long.”