Last night I had the opportunity to attend the awards ceremony for the 2013 Katharine and George Alexander Law Prize at Santa Clara University. The recipient was the Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, a blind and (formerly) barefoot peasant from rural China turned international human rights advocate.
Chen escaped China with his wife and two children in 2012, after he fled house arrest (thanks to some very incompetent guards – remember Chen is blind and fled alone!) and appeared at the US embassy in Beijing. After causing quite an international incident, Chen has now settled down into life in New York City, where he studies law at New York University.
I want to share a few of the things Chen said as well as a few of my impressions.
First, Chen was extremely blunt in his criticism of China’s leaders. He said that he was reluctant to call them a “government” because they ignore the rule of law. He referred to them as the Chinese Communist Party, not a government.
When questioned about the likelihood of future dissent he said this: “In the past the government was pulling up small plants. But now they are becoming trees.” Chen continued by saying that he actually found the possibility of a future revolution “likely,” which I found quite surprising, and which his translator did not initially translate – the moderator added that he said that.
Chen also commented, when asked what factors shaped who he is as a person, that his response has been very much a “natural reaction,” like shying away when you are being beaten. But in this case, of course, he did not shy away, he turned towards the beating and became hugely important because of it.
Chen voiced his appreciation of US law and the role of lawyers in human rights work to improve America over its history. It made me proud of my country that we could give refuge to such a courageous seeker of justice. It was also bittersweet to remember that the United States does have a very checkered human rights history, but that through the rule of law we have done much to overcome some of the worst abuses of the past.
Interestingly, while Chen’s story took center stage, what was not spoken of in much detail were some of the grotesque injustices that Chen had actually been fighting against. Chen has fought for the rights of the disabled, against government corruption, and for environmental protections. But what really got him in trouble is that Chen is a crusader against the Chinese one-child policy. Chen himself has two children, in violation of the policy. He was working to protect his fellow villagers from family planning officials who committed forced abortions and forced sterilizations on local women. For this he was imprisoned and then held under house arrest.
When I opened the paper this morning I was pleased to see that Chen was in the newspaper – a reporter must have been at the event last night (I had considered that there might be spies, but not that there might be reporters!). But I was shocked to see that the one-child policy was practically apologized for, the San Jose Mercury News coverage today seemingly undermining Chen’s work by noting the popularity of the policy in China, and how much bigger (and implicitly worse) China’s population would be without it.
Let’s get one thing clear. It does not matter if you are “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” because there is no choice involved in a forced abortion or sterilization, and such actions are extremely misogynistic and anti-feminist. Taking a pregnant woman, capturing her, often via coercion against her family or threats of torture or murder, tying her down, and performing a medical operation on her against her will, sterilizing her or cutting apart her child inside her womb, is barbarous inhuman evil. It is indefensible, no matter how popular it is or what consequences it has avoided.
Some facts can be reported without judgment. But the fact of forced abortion – a direct effect of the one-child policy and the most prominent target of Chen’s human rights work – is not one of them.
All right, enough of that.
For some final happy notes, Chen was appreciative of California and this “life giving season.” He said he liked California’s flowers and fruit. When he expressed his interest in California, someone in the crowd shouted “come here!” and “stay here!” It is obvious that Chen is beloved by many in the Bay Area Chinese community.
Chen was also very inspirational. He told us to ask ourselves how we might make society better. He told us that every person has the power to change the world. And he said to have faith and stick to it, don’t just talk, do it.
Chen Guangcheng has certainly done this with his own life, and endured much hardship while experiencing mixed results. But his story is nowhere near over. I do not think we have heard the last of Chen Guangcheng, and I wish him well in his future endeavors.