He may have been blind since he was an infant, but it does not mean that he could not see injustice happening all around him. 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Emergent Leadership CHEN GUANGCHENG is a transformative leader and a hero through and through – despite his lack of vision, he is a true visionary.
As a child, Chen Guangcheng listened intently to his father’s stories of classic heroes. One can only surmise how images of heroic men and women who challenged the powers of the high and mighty in search of justice for the poor and oppressed must have filled the mind and consumed the spirit of the young Chen, blind since infancy after a bout with high fever.
Today, Chen Guangcheng is the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Emergent Leadership, for “his irrepressible passion for justice in leading ordinary Chinese citizens to assert their legitimate rights under the law.” There will be a recognition ceremony on August 31 to honor him and six other awardees but Chen will not be able to attend. He is currently in prison in China serving a four-year and three-month sentence after he was found guilty of “gathering crowds to disrupt traffic order.”
Chen Guangcheng was born on November 12, 1971 in a remote village in Yinan County, Linyi City in Shandong, a coastal province on the eastern edge of northern China. The youngest child of a peasant family, he spent most of his early years at home having no access to formal education due to his disability.
In 1989, the government opened vocational education centers for the blind. A year later, government passed the Law on the Protection of Disabled Persons which ensured basic rights to the disabled including the right to own property, to elect and be elected, equal participation in social life, education, rehabilitation, employment, and welfare, and a good environment.
Chen attended Linyi Elementary School for the Blind (1989 to 1994) and the Qindao School for the Blind (1994 to 1998). At about this time, he taught himself English and studied the Chinese legal system also on his own. From 1998 to 2001, he took advantage of a privilege to study acupuncture and massage, the programs offered to disabled, at the Nanjing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
In 1996, Chen had his first recorded direct experience with Chinese bureaucracy. He went to the tax office in Beijing to complain that his parents were made to pay taxes for him even when he was exempted due to his disability. To his surprise, his parents were refunded. His success in Beijing encouraged the village handicapped and farmers to consult him for their own legal problems.
Upon his return from Nanjing in 2001, he organized farmers from his hometown and 78 surrounding villages to protest the pollution of their stream by a paper mill since 1988. When their protests were ignored by the company and local authorities, Chen and village leaders presented their case before western diplomats and journalists. The British Embassy responded by supporting the construction of a deep well with irrigation and potable water pipelines to bring clean water into the affected areas.
From 2000 to 2001, he initiated and managed the program of protecting the human rights of the handicapped under the auspices of the China Law Society, an initiative supported by the Federal Foundation of Britain.
Records show that Chen’s dealings with the British Embassy prompted local government to call him for interrogation. It is the first record of local government taking notice of Chen’s activities. It was also about this time that the international media became aware of Chen. The March 2002 edition of Newsweek Magazine had a good-looking Chen Guangcheng on its cover to highlight its lead feature on China’s country lawyers.
In 2003, Chen was recommended and participated in the International Visitor Leadership Program of the United States Department of State; he was in the U. S. for one month. In 2004, he managed the Citizen Awareness and Law for the Disabled Project with the support of the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy and the Monica Fund.
By 2005, Chen then married to Yuan Weijing with whom he has two young children, looked into reports that local officials were forcing abortions and sterilizations among couples with two children in Linyi. A news release on August 27, 2005 by the Washington Post Foreign Service tells of villagers’ accounts of their ordeal to Chen.
The report cited the case of one woman, seven months pregnant, who was on the run from authorities when she learned that more than a dozen of her relatives were being held until she returned. The hostages, the report said, were not given food and water and were beaten. The woman had no choice but to surrender; her baby was aborted and she was forced to submit to sterilization.
With a population of 1.3 billion, China is the most populated country in the world. Current projections estimate a population of anywhere from 1.4 to 1.6 billion in 2025, prompting government to aim at stabilizing population growth within the next few years. It encourages the one-child policy in urban areas, a policy that first surfaced in the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping; rural areas and ethnic minorities are exempt from this policy.
In September 2002, government issued the new Population and Family Planning Law to standardize policies and practices in the implementation of family planning policies across the country and to safeguard the rights of the people. Incorporated in the policy however are local birth quotas upheld by stiff penalties and rewards for the local authorities. Officially, the government opposes forced abortion and sterilization but coercion in the towns and villages are reportedly common as local officials have to meet population targets.
Reports show that in July 2004, the Linyi City Party Committee and government issued a document outlining the program for strengthening population and fertility control. To implement the program, local officials in some districts of the city resorted to violent measures that resulted in forced abortions and sterilizations by the end of the year. By early 2005, Linyi City government reissued the July 2004 document so that in March 2005, villagers felt the pressure from local authorities.
Chen gathered all documents to file a class lawsuit against the local officials involved. While the class lawsuit was not pursued, this is reportedly the first known concerted domestic effort to challenge the use of violence in the enforcement of China’s population policy. News of the class-action suit was released by the Washington Post Foreign Service on August 27, 2005.
The following month, the National Population and Family Planning Commission, the cabinet-level ministry that manages population growth in China, sent a team to Linyi to investigate. According to the report of the Chinese Rights Defenders (CRD), a Chinese grassroots advocacy group, the investigative team “found that there had been violations of law and policy in Linyi that had infringed the rights of citizens, and that as a consequence, some officials had been dismissed, while some were in detention and facing investigation for criminal responsibility.”
In early August, Chen was placed under house arrest in his village. Towards the end of the month, he was able to escape to Beijing and, with the help of friends, met a reporter of Time Magazine, a Washington Post correspondent, foreign diplomats, and several lawyers based in Beijing who had volunteered to help in the lawsuit against Linyi authorities. On September 6, 2005, while still in Beijing, Chen was seized by men who were later identified as police from Shandong province and Linyi.
The CRD report says that Chen was supposedly told by the Linyi Public Security Bureau that he was being held for revealing news information to foreign media and for illegally providing intelligence to foreign countries. The following day he was placed on house arrest.
Since then, Chen along with his family, friends, lawyers, neighbors and anyone else who showed support for or offered help to Chen were subjected to harassment, threats, arrests and assaults. Chen’s mobile phone and home phone were cut off and his computer was seized. Lawyers from Beijing who tried to visit Chen and neighbors who directed visitors to Chen’s house were reportedly arrested and beaten.
On March 11, 2006, Chen and two of his neighbors one of whom was badly beaten and bleeding at that time, were brought to the Yinan County Public Security Bureau. When he learned that the man was beaten while on his way home by four hooded persons with sticks and other weapons, Chen faced Yinan County officials and demanded an explanation. Local villagers began to crowd around Chen and the situation became a test of will between Chen and the villagers versus the local police. Violence erupted. The CRD report says, “…Police began pushing through the crowd, throwing Chen Guangcheng’s wife with their infant and his 70-year-old mother down into the ditch by the road, and then wrestling down Chen Guangcheng and holding his head on the ground…”
On August 24, 2006, the People’s Court of Yinan County sentenced Chen Guangcheng to four years and three months in prison on charges of willfully damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic. A Xinhua news report dated August 8, 2006 says that court documents claim Cheng Guangcheng “…organized a group of people…under the excuse of seeking justice…They interrupted traffic in the Yinghou Village section of the National Highway 205….Chen Guangcheng stood in the middle of the road to stop vehicles and directed the mob…to yell out and stop traffic…” The CRD reports that witnesses were detained, interrogated, and tortured until they confessed that Chen took the lead in mobilizing villagers to block traffic.
The case was submitted for appeal before the Linyi Municipal People’s Intermediate Court which, according to the CRD report, “rejected the lower Yinan County Court verdict” and sent back the case to the lower court for re-trial. On December 1, 2006, the lower court again convicted Chen Guangcheng for the same crimes and imposed the same sentence. This time, the appeals court upheld the sentence and charged Chen Guangcheng guilty of “gathering crowds to disrupt traffic order” after a closed door hearing.
His family and human rights groups in China are actively working for Chen’s release. They have called on the United Nations human rights bodies, the international community, the media, and other governments to study the case and lobby for Chen.
Chen Guangcheng’s story is now being told across the globe. He was among Asia Week Magazine’s “The Men of Year 2005” for his activities as Chinese human rights lawyer. On April 30, 2006, he was in Time Magazine’s list of “2006’s Top 100 People Who Shape Our World” in the category of “Heroes and Pioneers”.
In an interview with Time Magazine Chen said, “Someone has to fight for people with no voice. I guess that person is me.”
Chen Guangcheng is definitely a classic hero.