- Blinded by a fever when he was an infant, Chen Guangcheng was denied schooling for most of his youth; learned by listening to the radio and absorbing the classic Chinese stories his father read to him.
- By diligently studying law books read to him by others, he became a “barefoot lawyer”.
- He led farmers to protest against a river-polluting paper factory; launched a project to advance the legal rights of the disabled and filed a case against a transportation company for refusing to honor the law providing free rides to the blind.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his irrepressible passion for justice in leading ordinary Chinese citizens to assert their legitimate rights under the law.”
In China today, a transformation of dazzling speed and complexity is reshaping society and calling forth new leaders. Chung To and Chen Guangcheng are two of these. Each one in his own way, and on his own initiative, has stepped forward to address an urgent contemporary need. Where others have been slow to act, they have acted.
Chen Guangcheng was born in a tiny village in Shandong Province. Blinded by a fever when he was an infant, he was denied schooling for most of his youth. Instead, he soaked in knowledge by listening to the radio and absorbing the classic Chinese stories his father read to him. At seventeen, he entered a school for the blind and by age thirty he had completed a university course in massage and acupuncture therapy. By this time, Chen’s independent spirit had been thoroughly aroused.
When local officials in 1996 refused to honor a law exempting disabled persons from the annual agricultural tax—thus imposing an illicit burden on his own parents—Chen took his grievance all the way to central authorities in Beijing, and won! Local people with similar grievances began to seek his advice. By diligently studying law books read to him by others, he became a “barefoot lawyer” and helped his neighbors to register their complaints effectively and file civil cases in the local courts.
In 1998, Chen led farmers in Yinan County in protest against a river-polluting paper factory and persuaded an international donor to fund a deep well as an alternative to the filthy river water. He launched a project to advance the legal rights of the disabled and filed a case against a public transportation company in Beijing for refusing to honor the law providing free rides to the blind. This created an unwelcome national stir.
Indeed, by this time, Chen’s activism had drawn the irate attention of the local authorities. He was investigated and harassed. In 2003, anonymous wall posters in Linyi City, where he lived, called upon people to break his legs.
Chen was thus already a noted thorn in the side of Yinan County officials in 2004 when they launched a ruthless campaign to bring the county within government population-control quotas—by coercing mothers-to-be into late-term abortions and thousands of other women into involuntary sterilization. All of this was in violation of an existing law requiring informed consent. The outcry soon reached Chen, who meticulously documented the abuses and worked with the victims and lawyers to organize a class-action suit against the responsible officials—the first case of its kind in China and also the first concerted domestic challenge to the use of violence in China’s population policy. The suit failed, but led to an investigation by the State Family Planning Commission and a tacit admission of excesses. Meanwhile, Chen took the issue to the press and diplomatic corps and onto the Internet, leading to global exposure.
For this, he paid a heavy price. Back in Linyi, Chen’s cell phone was jammed, his computer seized; he and his wife and friends were repeatedly beaten. He was confined to his house, abducted and held secretly for three months, and then finally charged with disturbing public order in connection with a demonstration on his behalf. In a trial behind closed doors to which his own lawyers were not admitted, he was convicted and is now serving a prison term of four years and three months.
Chen’s hope is in the rule of law. He is energizing the grass roots and, with many others, challenging Chinese local authorities to obey the laws of the state. But this will not happen until citizens learn to act, he says. “People should protect their rights themselves.”
In electing Chen Guangcheng to receive the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his irrepressible passion for justice in leading ordinary Chinese citizens to assert their legitimate rights under the law.
(Mr. Chen Guangcheng was to be represented by his wife at the Magsaysay Awards Presentation Ceremonies today. She has since been unable to travel to Manila. Following is her response:)
Respected Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation’s Board of Trustees, Dear Friends:
I am Yuan Weijing, the wife of the blind human rights defender Chen Guangcheng, and I want to express my great gratitude to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for honoring my husband with the “Emergent Leadership Award”.
As of this moment, Guangcheng is incarcerated in Linyi prison in China’s Shandong Province. There, no special care is given to visually impaired inmates. The authorities have further deprived him of the means to read and write, and to listen to the radio, and are denying him other basic rights. His fellow prisoners were told that they were not allowed to have conversations with him. Being isolated in this way, I can imagine how happy, comforted and encouraged Guangcheng will feel to know that he has won this award.
Guangcheng believes in the rule of law. He has faith in the law and has faith in the law and justice. He has always worked with dedication on making the law in the books also respected in practice in China. Being visually impaired and a peasant as well, he has been particularly concerned about the basic rights of the disabled and the rural population. Because Guangcheng engaged in helping peasants to safeguard their rights, he became the target of a retaliatory strike by some corrupt government officials. Naturally, I was very worried about his safety and at that time I even urged him to stop with this work, in order to avoid danger. Guangcheng said: “How many people are complaining about injustice in society? Yet how many people think about what they have done to correct such injustice? Every little progress in society is the result of someone driving that effort. If we work hard, it is possible to achieve change; if not, it will be impossible.”
At present, he is serving a 4 years and 3 months prison sentence, the result of a conviction based on trumped-up charges and a flawed trial process. I was myself unlawfully kept under house arrest for two years by the authorities of Linyi in Shandong Province. Having fled from there to Beijing, I still face the danger of being kidnapped and taken back anytime. Prior to leaving, I went to prison to visit Guangcheng. He comforted his family and friends by assuring us that we need not feel sorry for him, and that we should think of him as just having left town for a while on a human rights mission. While in prison, he still uses the law to safeguard his and the other prisoners’ rights.
I am very happy that Guangcheng’s efforts have received recognition and encouragement from the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation and from other like-minded friends. I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere thanks to the lawyers and human rights defenders who risked their lives in providing legal assistance; to friends who still went to Linyi to show solidarity and support after having been stripped of their shirts and beaten by the police, and even having been subjected to house arrest; to the good and upright villagers who were kidnapped, tortured to extract statements supporting the trumped-up charges against my husband, and even themselves sentenced, all on account of Guangcheng’s case; to the friends in the media who reported the truth to help Guangcheng; and to the friends who are working hard toward Guangcheng’s release from detention, so he can regain his freedom.
I regret that I could not be present at this awarding ceremony to personally congratulate the six other awardees. I am proud of my husband and of all of you.
I and my children pray for Guangcheng’s early return home!
Beijing, 2 August 2007