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Chen Guangcheng was born into a poor family on November 12, 1971 in China’s Shandong Province. As an infant, Chen suffered a fever that left him permanently blind. Chen developed a keen interest in legal practice. Teaching himself the law by studying legal texts and auditing various courses, Chen assisted people in his village with legal matters. In 2003, he married an English teacher and the couple had two children. 

Chen’s activism began in 1996 when he petitioned the central government in Beijing over taxes that were improperly levied against his family. According to Chinese law, families with disabled persons receive tax exemptions that were not being granted to Chen. The campaign was successful and Chen began advocating for people with disabilities who had similar grievances with the government. Soon, he gained notoriety as a prominent activist for the disabled in China.

In 2005, Chen spent months investigating reports of forced abortions and sterilization being carried out by Chinese authorities to enforce the country’s one child policy, officially known as the Family Planning Policy. This law was enacted in 1978 and restricts most urban couples to a single child. When his investigation was complete, Chen filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the women he interviewed against the National Health and Family Planning Commission of China’s office in the city of Linyi. This was the first suit of its kind challenging the implementation of the one child policy. The case was rejected and the local government retaliated by placing Chen in de facto house arrest. In 2006, Chen was formally tried and charged with instigating destruction of public property and disturbing the peace , which Chen decried as baseless given his house arrest and constant surveillance by the police. He was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. After the proceedings, Amnesty International declared Chen a prisoner of conscience.

Chen was released from prison in 2010 only to once again be placed under house arrest by local authorities. His house was routinely monitored by security agents who prevented anyone from entering or exiting. Chen and his family were subject to constant harassment and abuse during this period.

Chen escaped from house arrest in April 2012 and fled to Beijing, where he sought refuge at the United States Embassy. In May 2012, Chen left the embassy after several weeks of negotiations, during which the Chinese government provided assurances that it would release the dissident from house arrest and investigate the actions taken against Chen by Shandong provincial authorities. Soon after leaving the embassy, Chen learned that his family had received numerous threats and feared the government would break its promises. He decided to leave China with his family and was offered a visiting scholar position by New York University. Chen accepted and arrived in New York with his family on May 19, 2012. He continues his work from the United States, advocating for human rights and democratic reform in China. 

I believe democracy, human rights, freedom, and rule of law are a naturalistic, historical progression of humanity. It is a part of human development. If the people can endure and work hard towards their goal, it will be realized. This persistence requires endurance so everyone should have multifaceted plans, clear goals, and try not to do everything at once. 

The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, after a decades-long civil war between communist and nationalist forces. The communist victory drove the nationalist government to the island of Taiwan. While tensions have eased in recent years, both the nationalist and communist forces still claim to rule all of China. China ranks as the world’s third largest country by area, and the largest by population, with over 1.3 billion people.

Since 1949, China has been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. Revolutionary leader Mao Zedong led the country until his death in 1976. Mao’s era was marked by dramatic swings in policy, massive crackdowns on perceived opponents of the regime, and harsh repression. Since 1976, the Chinese government has broken with Marxist economic orthodoxy by instituting limited market-based reforms, but the party has retained its monopoly on political power.

Freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion are severely restricted, and the people of China are denied the right to change their government. The courts are controlled by the Communist Party and do not provide due process of law. Government control extends into every aspect of people’s lives, most notably in the one-child policy in which unauthorized pregnancies often result in forced abortion and sterilization. While technology has spread quickly in recent years, Freedom House ranks China as one of the three most repressive governments in the world in terms of Internet freedom.

While the rapid expansion of the private sector has dramatically changed the Chinese economy, fundamental principles of free market systems are lacking, including property rights and independent labor unions. Official corruption remains a major obstacle to developing a fully free economy.

In 1989, 100,000 people gathered in a peaceful demonstration in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to protest human rights violations and demand democratic reforms. The protest lasted several weeks and inspired similar nonviolent demonstrations in other cities throughout China. On June 4, 1989, the People’s Liberation Army converged on the area with troops, tanks, and other advanced military weapons. Estimates of the death toll ranged from several hundred to several thousand. The army used similar tactics to suppress demonstrations in other cities and subsequently rounded up and imprisoned many thousands of protestors. The government vigorously defended these actions and instituted a campaign to purge those who had sympathized with protestors from the party and the government.

Although the Tiananmen Square massacre put an end to hopes for a speedy transition to democracy, courageous Chinese citizens have continued to risk imprisonment and worse to demand freedom. These human rights activists have included students, workers, lawyers, artists, and writers; Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims who demand respect for their cultures, traditions, and religious practices; members of the spiritual discipline known as Falun Gong; Catholics who insist that their church is headed by the Pope rather than by government-appointed religious officials; and members of the “house church” movement, representing millions of Protestant Christians who are forced to worship in secret because their churches are not authorized by the government. China’s many prisoners of conscience include members of each of these groups.

In 2010, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to imprisoned Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo. His wife was arrested in order to prevent her from attending the award ceremony, and the government employed a range of coercive techniques to prevent other human rights activists from attending. China’s leading human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, disappeared in early 2009 and is presumed to be in government custody.

The most recent Freedom in the World report from Freedom House gave China scores of 6 for civil liberties and 7 for political rights, where 1 is the highest and 7 the lowest possible score. Freedom House categorizes China as a “Not Free” country.

More on this theme from Chen Guangcheng

Chen Guangcheng: Message to Dissidents “If the people can endure and work hard towards their goal, it will be realized.”