April 29, 2012 1:16 pm

China legal activist’s rise is tale of self-starter

When Chen Guangcheng was a child, no-one could have guessed that he would one day rock relations between the world’s two leading powers.

Born in 1971 in the eastern Chinese village of Dongshigu, Mr Chen went blind as a result of a fever before he was a year old. Growing up in the countryside during Mao Zedong’s final years in power would have been difficult anyway, but the loss of his eyesight robbed Mr Chen of even the modest opportunities others had to get an education. He did not get the chance to start primary school until he was 18.

After three years of training in Chinese medicine in a special class for blind students at Nanjing University, Mr Chen returned home to work as a masseur in a county hospital.

The young man soon started supporting his fellow villagers over grievances such as forced abortions, corruption and bureaucratic red tape. He started training himself in the law, and after three years he quit his job to become a full-time legal activist.

“With plain words and a quiet attitude, he would just state the facts, neither high-profile nor loud. Clearly, he is a very practical man,” said Yang Yinbo, a writer and singer, in a blog post four years ago, one of the few pieces lauding Mr Chen that have survived Chinese censors’ efforts to scrub his name from the net.

The young activist’s fame grew quickly. “This is another personality that inspires China, he invigorates the bottom layers of society, practises enlightenment face to face, directly participates in action, pays attention to concrete cases and uses such cases to promote legal awareness,” wrote Mr Yang.

In 2005, the legal activist filed a mass lawsuit on behalf of victims of forced sterilisations and forced abortions in his home town, practices he also made public through foreign media.

The central government launched an investigation which eventually resulted in the detention of local officials involved in the illegal violent enforcement of family planning policies.

However, Mr Chen’s court case was dismissed and local authorities put him under house arrest. In 2006, he was convicted and sentenced to more than four years in prison on charges of “damaging property and organising a mob to disturb traffic”.

Even after his return home in September 2010, the blind legal activist did not regain freedom. Local authorities put him under house arrest, transforming his home into a makeshift prison with a concrete wall, security cameras, floodlights and guards patrolling his courtyard and the entire village day and night.

But no matter how hard it tried, the security apparatus could not silence Mr Chen. In February last year, Mr Chen and his wife detailed their confinement and mistreatment in a long video released by rights activists China Aid in the US.

Rights advocates say Mr Chen’s fate is by no means exceptional. But information about Mr Chen’s case has spread online and built him into an almost martyr-like figure.

As a result, Dongshigu has become the destination for pilgrimages of hundreds of other Chinese activists, foreign journalists and diplomats, all of whom were stopped by plainclothes thugs with threats, pushes, rocks or beatings.

“He incarnates everything that is wrong with China – the fallacy of the rule of law and the legality promise, the corruption and abuse of power, the discrimination of the handicapped,” says Nicholas Bequelin, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The case of human rights is built around cases. We have worked hard to make him prominent over the years.”

Diplomats say that when they raise Mr Chen’s case with Chinese officials, all they get is denial. “They always tell us that ‘he is a free man, but he has hurt the feelings of the local people’,” says one Western diplomat.

Political and legal analysts dismiss the notion that Mr Chen is a victim of local brutality. “His case was handled at the top,” says one. “Initially, having him convicted was seen as a way of legalising the crackdown on him. Then, after his jail sentence, the central government decided that he had to be shut up at all cost.”

In the video Mr Chen recorded last week giving more details of his ordeal, he very diplomatically ignored that. His 15-minute speech, at times apparently choking back tears, is a direct appeal to Wen Jiabao, the premier who has repeatedly but vaguely called for political reform, to take things in his own hands and put right what was done wrong.

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