Chen Guangcheng is a civil rights activist who grew up in the village of Dongshigu, Shandong Province. Blind from an early age, he taught himself law and has since dedicated his career to working on behalf of women’s rights and the welfare of the poor. He has exposed alleged abuses in official family planning policy, involving claims of violence and forced abortions.
In 2005, Chen gained international renown for organising a class-action lawsuit against the city of Linyi, accusing officials of abuses relating to the enforcement of the one-child policy. Soon afterwards, he was placed under house arrest between August 2005 and March 2006 and was formally arrested in June that year. During his trial, Chen’s attorneys were refused access to the court. On 24 August 2006, he was sentenced to more than four years in prison for “damaging property and organising a mob to disturb traffic”. Chen was released from prison in 2010 after serving his full sentence but remained under house arrest. In April 2012, he fled to the US embassy in Beijing; on 19 May, Chen, his wife and two children were granted US visas and left Beijing for New York.
On 26 September, Ai Weiwei and Chen conducted the following conversation for the New Statesman on Skype.
Ai Weiwei: You understand the issues surrounding the one-child policy and have participated in relevant work on this topic. Could you discuss your views on it?
Chen Guangcheng: Human life is of paramount importance to the traditional morals of Chinese culture. This concept has been trampled on by uncivilised policies and behaviour – including forced abortions – to the point of complete devastation. After decades of violent abortions, people have lost almost all respect and regard for life. It isn’t just ordinary parents who are affected by the one-child policy: friends, relatives and neighbours can also be implicated. And an inevitable result is an ageing society. But the most detrimental effect of the policy is the destruction of the value of life.
Can we talk more specifically about when this all started? When did you get involved?
This has always been an extremely serious issue. It was worse before the family planning laws were introduced in 2002. Because of the lack of rules, the government could do as it pleased. After the laws were introduced, however, the situation remained largely the same.
On 14 February 2005, the Linyi municipality published an official red-tape document, to be distributed to the family planning departments of each county and village. Its main content is roughly this: it overestimated people’s knowledge of the law, so it cannot reason with them according to the law; so it must retreat to the old approach. What is this old approach?
The old approach began in the 1980s and continued until the end of the policy in 2002. It had slogans: “Sterilise when you should or lose your roof.” “Abort when you should or lose the house.” This meant that [the state] could seize a family’s home and food and resell them cheaply. If you refused to undergo sterilisation, your house would be destroyed by bulldozers and tractors. They would use a wire rope, called “seed rope” at that time, and this would be tethered to a beam on a tractor. One pull, and the houses would collapse. This is what they mean by the old approach.
Some people committed suicide. The government would ridicule such acts of desperation. The person in charge of the local party committee and the family planning committee has said that suicide was no problem – “I won’t take away the bottle if you want to take an overdose; I won’t take away the rope if you want to hang yourself.” So the 2002 law hasn’t changed much. The destruction of the value of human life has continued.
How can a public policy cause so much damage to human rights, life and property?
This has to do with the system. Even after the family planning laws were introduced, the party still had a “veto by one vote” policy. It doesn’t matter how good your performance is in everything else; if you fail in family planning, you won’t be promoted. You may even be punished. Under rules like this, many officials put aside their conscience and suppressed the people. Over time, they have become numb and indifferent to blood. This is an important process to note. In addition, family planning policies have become an industry, a source of income.
Shandong Province has a strong tradition of Confucian teachings, so why does it appear to be so keen on implementing the policies of “Strike Hard” and “stability maintenance”?
The first factor is profits. Another factor is that mistakes are made to cover up previous errors, leading to a vicious cycle. It’s no wonder that the situation is so intense. The third factor relates to funding provided for stability maintenance.Lower-level officials please their superiors if they work on maintaining stability and receive large sums of funding for it. The funding is partially retained at every level of the hierarchy. When it finally reaches the grass-roots implementer, there is practically no funding left. Given the mercenary nature underpinning China, the situation is not too surprising.
Family planning affects every family. To impose such policies must mean that the control and administration have been effective.
Right, the administration is extremely effective. Not only does it impact on each individual household, it affects everyone. What happens in Linyi happens across the whole country, only to varying degrees. There are two different levels. First, there’s the difference in the way cases are handled; second, there are different amounts of exposure a case receives.
A person’s birth must have prior consent from the government. Otherwise, one is not permitted to be born. The family planning committee is responsible for issuing birth certificates. Without this certificate, birth is not permitted. Registration is not allowed.
There is no space for the person in society. If you do not have a birth permit, then no hospital will deliver your child, as no one wants to be held responsible. And each child grows up to face the same policy, so it controls every individual, not just every household.
Chen Guangcheng photographed in New York by Zhe Chen.
How did you get involved in activism? What brought you into this arena?
I think it is a very natural state of affairs [that I am involved]. You can hear children and adults screaming everywhere. All too often, you can hear people smashing down the doors of others. No one with a conscience can sit on the sidelines. I have some knowledge of the law. The regulations are very clear. But the law is tantamount to a piece of scrap paper.
In what way?
Under the authoritarian regime in China, the law is just a tool for one section of the people to control another section of the people. In a democratic society, the law is a behavioural norm that all people must abide by. It is a social public order. However, in China, the law is optional. Those in power use it when it suits them and ignore it when it doesn’t.
I take it that what you just said was [something you learned] from personal experience – you did not realise this when you started to fight for human rights. It’s your experience later that has taught you all that. Could you briefly describe what happened?
Indeed, I did not understand it very well at first. But facts have blood as evidence. I thought I’d try to use the law as a tool and see what could be done. After much experience, I’ve come to the conclusion I told you.
What is your experience?
It’s hard to describe in a few words! In short, rights were violated; I tried to protect these rights; I was persecuted and then I tried to seek justice and suffered even greater persecution.
All Chinese human rights activists seem to follow the same path. In the beginning, it’s a trivial matter; they just want an explanation. As the law is ignored and trampled upon, they get caught in a vicious cycle.
What is said and what is done are completely different in reality. The propaganda and the legal policies are well tailored; what is done in practice is completely contrary. Maybe this is what people mean when they say: “Good things were said, bad things were done.”
You have two lovely children. How did this happen?
My first child’s birth was in accordance with the procedures of the family planning committee. The second child did not receive citizenship, because he was what they call an “excess child”.
Did you receive a fine?
Yes. Recently, I’ve heard of many kinds of fines in various forms. I heard that a man was arrested several times and required to pay a fine of 43,000 yuan. After almost a year, the family planning committee sent a receipt. It stated that the fine was 38,000 yuan. Some 5,000 yuan had disappeared into thin air. This illustrates the great mystery surrounding the fines.
Were your imprisonment and subsequent illegal detention related to this?
We were investigating a case, an elderly man named Shi Mingli who died while in custody. To prevent the case from triggering mass dissent, the authorities had me done. Perhaps they saw this as a safer thing to do.
I’d still like to hear more from you on your personal experiences and family planning activism. Please be more specific.
Alas, it’s so hard to describe. Just like you said, in the birthplace of Confucius, simplicity and the kindness of people still exist. Despite wave after wave of violent conflicts, people are fundamentally kind.
Against such inhumanity, there is no way not to be involved and not to expose the scandals of officials. So I have spoken out against the extensive violence in Linyi: the extent of the cruelty, as well as the number of victims, and so on and so forth. The most important thing is that, despite a combination of carrots and sticks, I refused to give in. They said I disrupted traffic. In reality, I was being held at home. How could I have possibly disrupted traffic? They said I damaged public property but I knew the truth and so did everybody in my village.
Right, how could you have disrupted traffic and damaged public property if you were at home? [You are persecuted] because you’ve become a role model. You have a disability but they have chosen you for punishment, instead of the many able-bodied men out there. I think they must have a reason.
How can I put this? They probably think that their lives would be easier without me.
What did you do to hinder their work? And in what way did they feel threatened?
It’s the litigation. I sued them for their illegal actions, in accordance with Chinese national law. There were also media reports and this was what they disliked most of all. Perhaps [they felt threatened] because I knew the provisions of the law; perhaps it was because I knew they were violating the law; or perhaps it’s because
I have made this issue known to the international media. When they were committing their offences, they would often say: “We have to treat you this way or that way in accordance with the law.” However, there was actually no law for them to refer to. A lot of victims didn’t even know what law was being applied to them or if there was a law at all. It’s easy to commit offences continually against those who don’t understand the law, but that’s not the case with those who do.
In the end, didn’t they charge you with disturbing the social order?
No, they charged me with disrupting traffic. They sentenced me to four years and three months in prison.
Do you know the overall statistics for family planning?
I don’t have statistics for the whole country but I gathered statistics for Linyi when I was there. From February to August 2005, nearly 130,000 people were forced to have an abortion or get sterilised. More than 600,000 family members and relatives were affected. That’s only the data for that city.
There is a huge industrial chain – every area has a family planning office and a control department. The system is a massive employer.
Yes. And it’s not just about employment: there are wider economic interests as well. There were 130,000 forced sterilisations and abortions. This has created an industry, the income from which is extremely high. Over 60 million people are affected by this policy – your neighbours, for example. If you have violated family planning and become pregnant and they cannot find you, your neighbours in a 50-metre radius will be arrested. In other words, they will use your house as the centre of a 50-metre circle, arresting at least five other households.
If you count the four directions from the house, at least 20 families will be affected. They will arrest one person from each family and lock them away to “study”. Every day, they have to pay 200 yuan as their tuition fee and they will be beaten once in the morning and once at night. Therefore, people do whatever they can to find the pregnant woman. Because the families are worried, they call on their relatives to bribe the officials to release the person arrested. They pay between 3,000 and 5,000 yuan. After they hand over the money, the officials think of a way to send the person home but they can still be rearrested after three to five days. And then they have to pay again to get the person rereleased. There won’t even be a receipt. That’s a tremendous amount of income. If you cut off the revenue stream of these family planning officials, of course they will be angry.
Do you think that the policy will come to an end one day, that it will be abolished?
Anything that fails to win over the citizens will come to an end sooner or later, there is no doubt about it. Going against public opinion and suppressing the population won’t last long. That’s extremely clear.
You say that it won’t last long. But it’s been 30 years, hasn’t it?
Yes. In the beginning, all the common people were obedient; basically, there weren’t any citizens [who were aware of the problem]. In recent years, people are rapidly waking up and this is the difference from previous years. This is the most important factor as to why it can’t last much longer.
So you are very optimistic?
I think this is the law of nature, not just optimism. New issues have also emerged. Under this high-pressure policy, people lose their moral standards and ignore the value of life and their dignity. As far as family planning goes, society is now ageing quickly and this will soon become very serious. The most important point is that people are awakening. After this awakening, they need to put their social responsibilities into action. When people are talking about societal issues, they should think: “What have I done for society?” In the past, there were not many who felt this way but now there are more and more. If this continues, then the day that this irrational social system will come to an end may arrive sooner rather than later.