By Yaxue Cao, published: November 12, 2011
To say life didn’t start promisingly for him is a vast understatement. He was born on November 12, 1971, in the impoverished village Dong Shi Gu (东师古) in Yinan County, Shandong province, the youngest of five boys. He lost his vision to high fever when he was around one year old. He didn’t go to school until 18 years old. In the Chinese countryside, where living is at its barest, expectations are a rare commodity to begin with, and for the disabled, there are none. For most of the part, they are seen and treated as a family scourge that must be borne.
Despite blindness, he told friends he had a happy childhood. His father read to him centuries-old Chinese classics such as Outlaws of the Marsh (《水浒》) and The Three Kingdoms (《三国演义》). He helped his parents in the field. Of the two popular boys’ sports, snatching eggs out of bird nests and catching fish in the river, he exceled in both, using his hearing as guide. “I couldn’t see fish, but I knew where fish were and under what rock they liked to stay.”
Being blind, sometimes he got picked on. He couldn’t catch the offender, but he could remember his voice. Next time he heard it again, he would grab him and teach him a lesson.
He grew up to be a young man who liked to talk and liked to laugh, who was tall, strong and, by all standards, handsome.
At 18 years old in 1989, he entered Linyi Elementary School for the Blind. From 1994 to 1998, he attended the School for the Blind in Qingdao (青岛), Shandong. From 1998 to 2001, he studied in Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine. At the time China had only two universities that accepted blind students, and, nationwide, only 40-50 blind people were admitted each year, all studying Chinese medicine and massage, the only subject deemed suitable for them. Still, he was one the luckiest to have gone that far in life.
Fighting Rights for the Disabled as well as the Non-disabled
His first fight was a fight for himself. China has a law called the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Disabled Persons, first promulgated in 1990, stipulating that “People’s governments at county and township levels shall, in line with the actual conditions, reduce or exempt disabled persons in rural areas from obligatory labor, public utilities fees and other social obligations.” When his father read the law to him, he was very excited that he would be less a burden to the family.
But a few years passed, and he was paying more taxes and fees, not less. In 1996, his annual payment for total 8 different taxes and fees was as high as 368 yuan when his annual income from the land was about 500 yuan. He refused to pay, and the local government recorded his “debt” in its books. When he challenged the tax collectors, he was told that “I know there is the law, but we don’t enforce it, and what can you do about us?” Still a student in Qingdao, he carried the law with him and went to the township government, then the municipal government, and then all the way to Jinan (济南), the provincial government. Getting no results, he travelled to Beijing as soon as the winter break started in 1996.
He followed the petition procedures and got a “directive”(批示) in 1997. Finally the township government exempted all the payments and gave him an annual 200 yuan subsidy. But in the same year, they took away more than one third of the land allocated to him, the equivalent of 240-yuan income.
In 1998, he read an article about the illegality of splitting agrarian land into two types (两田制) that was widely practiced in his area, that is, 40% of the village’s land was allocated based on family size, and 60% was for rent; whoever wanted to farm on it had to pay a fee. He went to Beijing again in the summer and succeeded in ending the illegal practice. After the two petitions, “people at the township government hated me to death,” he told a journalist in an interview.
Even though he had success in his two times of petitioning, he was deeply disappointed by the way the lower governments handled the issues. “Petitioning is pretty useless,” he said. “To defend our rights, we must rely on the law.” In other words, he put his faith in the rule of law.
In his first case, Chen Guangcheng helped another blind man in another township to sue a village head who forced the disabled man to dig dirt and to pay taxes. When the blind man refused, the village head chided him through loud speakers and harassed him face to face. Chen Guangcheng filed a complaint on behalf of the blind man and won the case.
More people came to him for help. He helped other handicapped people, women who were subjected to late-term abortion, people with mental illness, farmers and small business owners who were overtaxed or taxed illegally, almost always against governmental personnel or entities, from village heads to township governments, local tax authority, public security bureau, and even the Beijing subway authority. A local journalist friend of his estimated that, from 1996 to the time he lost freedom in 2005, Chen Guangcheng helped about 3,000 people directly or indirectly through legal representation and consultation. All for free.
As you can imagine, it is not easy to be a lawyer, barefoot or otherwise, and blind. In China, only two laws, the aforementioned Protection Law and the Marriage Law, had braille versions. He had to rely on his father, and later his wife, to read the laws to him. He once applied to audit law courses in Jiaotong University and was rejected unless he was an officially anointed “national model worker ” or a world sports champion. He was neither. For everything he did, he had to give ten times more efforts than a normal person.
At the same time, he is incredibly able, Chinese medicine and law notwithstanding, he knows how to use computer, and can surf online. He uses cell phone, fax, copier, and recording pen. And he speaks some English.
When he first started, he said in an interview, people at the court often sympathized with the disabled and the poor who also had the law on their side. But when pressured by people with power, they put aside both their conscience and the law, creating hurdles to thwart him and his clients. His clients were often beaten by hired thugs for resorting to the law, while he himself received telephone threats. One night, when he was walking alone on the road, a motorcycle sped toward him from behind but braked abruptly in a screech. After moments of terrifying silence, it drove away. “Perhaps he was a hired murderer who changed his mind the last moment,” Chen Guangcheng speculated.
He won some cases and lost others. The lost ones, he believed, were not lost for nothing. “The cases themselves are less important than the awareness [of rights],” he said. “These lawsuits wake people up to an understanding of this society. One case affects one family; one family can influence another four or five families. China has two hundred million families, if they all understand and know the nature of the society, they will work to change it.”
Who says he doesn’t have vision?
He became well known in the area, and people flocked—some crawled hours–to “Lawyer Chen” for help even though he was not a licensed lawyer. When he graduated from college, he had a job in the county hospital as a masseur, but he later quit it and focused on his “legal career”, supporting himself and his family as a farmer. He tried to form a NGO in Beijing in 2002 to defend the rights of the disabled, but didn’t succeed. He applied for funds from numerous foreign and domestic foundations but received only bureaucratic replies or no replies. About the foundations, he had this to say: “They were wasting precious resources on judges who knew the right and wrong but flouted the law anyway when they should be focusing on educating and empowering the powerless.”
Meanwhile, he established a library to spread helpful information to the villagers, and he invited lawyers and officials from Beijing to his village to give lectures to the handicapped about rights and self-reliance.
He met his wife on a radio call-in show in the spring of 2001. A new college graduate but jobless, Yuan Weijing (袁伟静) called the show to voice her frustration. He heard it. He called her, encouraged her, and told her his story. That summer, she visited him and they started dating. They married in 2003 and the local TV station did a live-broadcast of their wedding. When asked why she wanted to marry a blind man, his wife said, “You tell me, why wouldn’t I marry him?”
His activities attracted attention from media far and wide. In March 2002, he appeared on the cover of Newsweek. In 2003, he was selected by the US State Department’s International Visitor Program to visit several American cities and organizations of handicapped people. In the same year he was named one of Linyi’s Ten news personalities by the municipal government. Several domestic newspapers and magazines profiled him. He was, in short, a great citizen any reasonable society can have, loved by people and recognized by the authority.
That is, until he fell afoul of it.
Forced Abortion and Sterilization
In July 2004, the People’s Government of Linyi issued a directive to step up population control efforts. Unsatisfied with the results, Linyi government issued a more forceful directive in February 2005, marking the beginning of a vicious campaign in the 9 counties and 3 districts under its jurisdiction. The measures included:
Raids—In the middle of the night when villagers were sound asleep, family control officials and their hired thugs would kick people’s doors open or enter their property by jumping over the enclosing walls, pulling everyone in the house away regardless of age, as long as someone in their family was hiding to avoid abortion or sterilization. Resisters were beaten on the spot. One house after another, they shoved people into vehicles and took them to local family control offices to attend the so-called “study session.”
Torture—Almost everyone was tortured in the “study session.” The thugs forced people to undress and then beat them with clubs. They slapped faces, pulled hair, stepped on people’s heads, or lashed them on their insteps with leather shoes. They put people in sacks and beat them, or forced them to squat on one foot. They denied people sleep, water and food. They ordered family members to beat each other. They cursed and spewed verbal abuses.
Some “study sessions” charged the villagers a daily fee on top of torture.
At first the detention was limited to direct family members, then it was expanded to relatives and neighbors, and then to the relatives of the neighbors, and then to entire villages. As a result, many pregnant women who had gone into hiding came back following their family’s pleas and subjected themselves to abortion, often late-term and horrendously brutal (such as sticking a long needle into the uterus), and sterilization.
A few committed suicide and one man was beaten to death and thrown out on the riverbank.
According to Chen Guangcheng’s rough estimation, about 12%, or 130,000, of Linyi’s population had been subjected to forced sterilization, and at least 520,000 people had been harassed, fined, detained or tortured during the period.
China’s family planning laws guarantee citizens an “informed choice” (whatever that means) in abortion and sterilization. A senior official with the national family planning commission in Beijing told Washington Post that practices in Linyi were “definitely illegal” and “if the Linyi complaints are true, or even partly true, it’s because local officials do not understand the new demands of the Chinese leadership regarding family planning work.”
That explains nothing.
According to the rights lawyers who worked with Chen Guangcheng, the cause was the leadership of Linyi, led by Li Qun (李群), the then Party Secretary of Linyi Municipality, who was criticized by the provincial leadership for population control failures.
The same Washington Post article also pointed out that “the ability to limit population growth remains a top consideration in party deliberations about promotions and raises. In much of China, an official who misses a population target, even if he or she excels in other fields, is dismissed, according to researchers and family planning officials.”
Chen Guangcheng’s Involvement
One night he heard and recorded the wailing of his neighbor’s child. Over the phone, he heard more people telling their stories in tears. He cried with them.
Starting in April 2005, he and his wife hit the road with notepads and a recording pen. From village to village they met with victims and listened to their stories. He wrote up complaints for them, collected evidence, and answered their questions. He physically confronted the family planning officials and warned them of their illegal practices.
It wasn’t easy. Some wouldn’t dare to tell the truth; others were afraid to sue the government; most of the courts didn’t accept filings. In filed cases, villagers were threatened into withdrawing their case.
Knowing his helplessness, he travelled to Beijing several times to ask help from rights lawyers, activists and journalists to come to Linyi to investigate. From April to August, several batches of lawyers and scholars from Beijing investigated in Linyi and exposed wide-spread brutal practices. News outlets in the US reported the matter, including the one by Philip Pan of the Washington Post.
All the time these were going on, the visitors led by Chen Guangcheng were followed, watched, and thwarted.
Confinement, Escape, Kidnapping, Beating, Imprisonment, Isolation
Beginning August 11, 2005, Chen Guangcheng and his wife were confined in their home and watched by dozens of people scattered around the area. In the night of August 25, Chen Guangcheng managed to slip out in the dark, shake off guards running after him, and eventually arrive in Beijing, but not without taking detours through Shanghai and Nanjing.
In the afternoon of September 6, 2005, six men who claimed to be Public Security officers, without showing any ID or legal documents, seized Chen Guangcheng and took him away in a Santana sedan (license plate 鲁B13237) in front of three witnesses, including a Chinese lawyer and Philip Pan of Washington Post.
Badly beaten in the car, that night he was taken back to Yinan County to a hotel room. On the morning of September 7, Liu Jie (刘杰), the head of Linyi Public Security Bureau paid him a visit. “It is enough to give you a five-year sentence just for being interviewed by Washington Post. Another interview, you’ll get ten years!” He then suggested that Chen Guangcheng withdraw from exposing the abuses. Chen refused.
After a 26-hour hunger strike, he was sent home, but was under close watch and not allowed to leave. In the following days his telephone was disconnected, computer removed, and cell phone signal disrupted. No outsiders were allowed to go into his house. He was completely cut off from the outside world.
From this time to early 2006, rights lawyers and other friends and activists, mostly from Beijing, visited Linyi hoping to meet Chen Guangcheng, but were beaten and turned away. Villagers who protested Chen’s confinement or who tried to help the visitors were repeatedly beaten and detained. More international media outlets reported what was happening in Dong Shi Gu, and human rights organizations called for his release. Chen Guangcheng himself was beaten several times, as was his wife.
On March 11, 2006, Chen Guangcheng and two others were arrested. By then he had already been under house arrest for 197 days.
On June 11, 90 days after Chen Guangcheng was held incommunicado without authorization, his wife received a notice of criminal detention issued by Yinan County Public Security Bureau for allegedly “gathering crowds to obstruct traffic” and “destruction of property.”
By then his wife had written letters to Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, Chinese President and Prime Minister respectively, and UN Secretary General Annan, pleading for justice. After Chen Guangcheng was formally detained, she wrote to Deng Pufang, the son of Deng Xiaoping and Chairman of China’s Disabled Persons’ Federation.
To publicize Chen Guangcheng’s case, lawyers, scholars and friends in Beijing planned a press conference on June 16, and Chen’s mother and son were to attend. But the press conference had to be cancelled, because every single organizer had been called on, followed or confined by authorities in Beijing that day. Most shockingly, Cheng Guangcheng’s mother and his toddler son were kidnapped outside Teng Biao’s apartment building by ten unidentified men and spirited away in a van without a license plate. They were brought back to Yinan to the home of one of Chen Guangcheng’s brothers.
Chen’s lawyers were allowed to meet with him in the Yinan detention center. They were later prevented by thugs from visiting Yuan Weijing, Chen’s wife, to discuss the case. While in his hotel room, Li Jinsong (李劲松), one of Chen’s defense lawyers, received telephone threats from an unidentified man. “Have you lived enough? Have you?” The man menaced repeatedly.
In Beijing, national security personnel called on the lawyers and activists; while in Linyi, Chen Guangcheng’s lawyers were followed, threatened, beaten on the street by unidentified thugs, had their camera smashed and their cars overturned.
The Trial and Retrial
The trial of Chen Guangcheng was held on August 18, 2006. The night before, six or seven men accused his lawyers of stealing bags and were held in police custody until the trial was over the next day. Chen Guangcheng protested in the courtroom and rejected lawyers the court assigned to him, but the court forged ahead with the trial anyway. On that day, hundreds of policemen blocked the traffic around the courthouse, and prohibited anyone from attending the trial, including Chen Guangcheng’s mother, his wife and his relatives. People who came from outside Linyi to attend the trial were being detained, blocked or beaten. On August 24, the Yinan County People’s Court convicted Chen Guangcheng of “intentional destruction of property” and “gathering crowds to disrupt traffic,” and sentenced him to four years and three months in jail.
“Gathering crowds to disrupt traffic” referred to the incident on March 11, 2006. That day, Chen Guangcheng’s neighbor Chen Guangyu was attacked on his way to the village store to buy cigarettes by four men who covered his head and beat him badly. Chen Guangcheng and other enraged villagers marched to protest the beating. Several dozen police blocked their way and surrounded them on national highway 205, causing traffic disruption. “Intentional destruction of property” referred to earlier damage of property used by the guards and overturning police cars.
Later, two villagers who were “key witnesses” in Chen’s case called his lawyers to relate how the police tortured them to obtain testimonies. They were tied to chairs with metal chains and kept for days without sleep. They were deprived of food and water and not allowed to use the toilet. They were forced to recite testimonies that had been written by the police. At this time, it was still legal for police to submit testimony that been obtained through torture.
On October 30, the Linyi Intermediate People’s Court overturned the case on the basis of insufficient evidence, and referred it back to the lower court for retrial after reviewing the appeal by Chen Guangcheng’s lawyers.
The retrial was held on November 27. The Yinan County People’s Court again convicted Chen Guangcheng for the same crimes and upheld the same sentence.
From a Small Prison to a Big One
Chen Guangcheng was released on September 9, 2010, and has been under illegal house arrest since then. His home is monitored by multiple cameras, floodlit 24 hours a day, and all communications with the outside world are severed. Close to a hundred men guard his home and are present on every road leading to his village, intercepting, beating, robbing, and humiliating visitors.
After a video of him was smuggled out and shown to the world, he and his family were beaten. In a letter smuggled out later to seek help, his wife described how Zhang Jian (张建), the Deputy Party Secretary of Shuanghou Township, and about 70-80 national security officers raided their home and beat the couple severely, how they searched the premise and took away their computer, video recorder, tapes, chargers, flashlight and more. Later on, their windows were covered with metal sheets, and more objects were seized including Chen Guangcheng’s cane, paper and pens. Their daughter was not allowed to leave the house, and her books and toys were removed too. Three people followed Chen’s mother wherever she went. Mostly worryingly, Chen Guangcheng’s health was deteriorating from gastrointestinal bleeding.
In late July, Chen Guangcheng succeeded in calling a friend in Beijing on a stormy day when the mobile phone block failed. He and his wife were again severely beaten.
The efforts to free Chen Guangcheng started as soon as he was released from prison when a trickle of friends and netizens tried to visit him without success. Recently, the trickle has become a stream, widely reported and closely watched by many.
Who Are They? Where Does the Order Come from?
Who are Chen Guangcheng’s persecutors anyway? We know there was Li Qun (李群), the Party Secretary of Linyi who has since been promoted to Party Secretary of Qingdao, a much bigger and more important city, and a member of the Standing Committee of Shandong Provincial Party Committee.
There was Liu Jie (刘杰), the head of Linyi Public Security Bureau and scores of other officials and officers from the government to the court to the township.
Why are so many people in China willing to defy the law to carry out orders from their superiors? Where else on earth is power so unchecked, so ugly, that hundreds of thousands of people are subjected, in such a blithe way, to unbearable suffering for the interest of a mere few?
For the audience of this blog, it is particularly interesting to note that Li Qun was an assistant to the mayor of New Haven, Connecticut for three months after studying in the MPA program in the University of New Haven, in the early 2000s, through Shandong province’s cadre overseas training program. He was so proud of that three months that he wrote and published a book entitled “I Was an Assistant to an American Mayor” (《我在美国当市长助理》, Xinhua Press, 2004).
Since Chen Guangcheng’s case has become an international affair, it is clear that what has happened and is still happening in Linyi has the backing of Beijing. Where does the order come from? Why are they so afraid of this blind man?
Place of Origin
Chen Guangcheng hails from a very special place. As Li Chengpeng (李承鹏), a renowned online commentator reminded us, a mere 170 kilometers northwest of Linyi is the home of Confucius who tirelessly preached “benevolent governance.” Even closer to him once lived Jiang Tai Gong (姜太公) and Mengzi (孟子) who advised the rulers to always put people and their communities first so as to nourish peace for everyone.
With affection, his friend Teng Biao (滕彪) described Chen’s warm, confident voice, his sensibility to others’ pain, and how he directed their car, followed by officers, “insouciantly” through the streets to eventually get rid of their pursuers.
The sages would have been proud of Chen Guangcheng. Indeed, he, like them, represents the best of China.
A very short distance from Chen Guangcheng’s village was a place called Meng Liang Gu (孟良崮), where in 1947, the Communist Army fought and defeated the Nationalist Army and moved another step closer to the new China they envisioned. Linyi area was one of the oldest bases of the Communist Party before 1949 where people supported and made sacrifices for the communist cause.
What do they get?
“To toll the bell,” someone commented online, “sometimes a blind man will do.”
Sources for this article: Writings by Teng Biao (滕彪), Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Guo Yushan (郭玉闪), Zhai Minglei (翟明磊) and others. I apologize for not documenting the sources professionally as I should.