A blind Chinese peasant has given the whole world a lesson in the power of one. Chen Guangcheng became one of China’s best-known civil rights activists after defending women in his province who had forced abortions under the one-child policy.

Now, after a dramatic escape from house arrest, he appears to have taken refuge in the US embassy in Beijing. His flight is perfectly timed to coincide with weighty discussions between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts.

No doubt “barefoot lawyer” Chen realises that he has put both governments in a cleft stick. He has exposed one of China’s most hideous human rights abuses and he has challenged the Obama administration to truly make human rights – in the President’s words—“a core national security interest and core moral responsibility.”

Chen Guangcheng and his family.

Chen may be blind; he may be poorly educated; he may be a peasant – but he has outsmarted the world’s two most powerful governments. Neither of them wanted the one-child policy exposed to the glare of the world media. But now it is being discussed around the globe.

Forty-year-old Chen is a man of remarkable courage and intelligence. Blind almost from birth, he was raised on classic tales of courageous heroes fighting corrupt officials. He came from a poor family and only began school when he was 17. 

In 1996 he began to lobby for rights for the disabled in Shandong Province, about 500 kilometres south of Beijing. He was so successful as a “barefoot lawyer” that local people took their grievances to him. He gained a national reputation by leading protests against illegal taxes, polluters, and discrimination against the disabled.

 

Local officials had already started harassing him when he launched a protest against illegal implementation of the one-child policy. He documented abuses and worked with victims and lawyers to organise a class-action suit against family planning officials in 2005. This failed, but his reputation grew.

Then local officials revenged themselves. They charged him with “wilfully damaging public property and organising a mob to disturb traffic”. In 2006 he was sentenced to jail for four years.

In 2010 Chen was released but, together with his wife and son, he remained under illegal and sometimes brutal house arrest. Making his guards look like a bunch of Keystone Cops, Chen escaped on the night of April 22. Supporters drove him to Beijing.

From his hiding place Chen has released a YouTube appeal to Premier Wen Jiabao asking that officials who attacked his family be prosecuted and that the government prosecute corruption cases according to the law. Appealing to the law may seem quixotic, but if the draconian family planning laws had just been obeyed to the letter, women would have been spared some of the horror of forced abortions and sterilizations.

Horror is not too strong a word. Activist Annie Jing Zhang, of Women’s Rights in China, told a US Congressional hearing in 2009 that some towns display slogans like “Pregnancy with permit”, “When you are required by policy to get abortion, but if you don’t, your house will be destroyed, your buffalo will be confiscated”, “Abort it, kill it, terminate it.  You just cannot give birth to it” or “We would rather to have blood flow like a river than to allow one extra baby to be born”.

Chen ends his YouTube appeal by saying:

“Premier Wen, many people don’t understand these illegal actions. Is it the local Party officials who are disobeying the laws, or do they have the support of the central government? I think that in the near future, you must give the public a clear answer. If we have a thorough investigation and tell the truth to the public, the results will be self-evident. If you continue to ignore this, what will the public think?”

Chen’s audacious ploy discomfits the US as well. Although President Obama recently set up an Atrocities Prevention Board, his administration has been reluctant to question the notorious one-child policy of its biggest trading partner. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in 2009 that human rights shouldn’t interfere with practical concerns:

“Successive administrations and Chinese governments have been poised back and forth on these issues, and we have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis.”

And Vice-President Joe Biden gave a speech at Sichuan University last year in which he spoke so diplomatically about the one-child policy that he seemed to be endorsing it: “Your policy has been one which I fully understand—I’m not second-guessing—of one child per family”.

Now it’s time for the Obama Administration to show some courage of its own in standing up for Chen and his family. Essentially his demands are modest. All he wants is the protection of Chinese law. Even his activism against the one-child policy has been focused on getting officials to observe the informed consent enshrined in the law, not to overturn it.

Besides, it is possible that reformers in the upper echelons of the Communist Party like Wen Jiabao actually welcome Chen’s move. The hardline chief of security, Zhou Yongkang, who orchestrated the persecution of Chen, has already been rattled by the purging of party princeling Bo Xilai. Sympathy for Chen weakens his own position.

In any case, it is becoming increasingly clear that the one-child has been a disaster for China, as The Economist recently pointed out. China’s burden of elderly is growing, and the proportion of younger tax-payers is shrinking. Already there are labour shortages. Notwithstanding its current strength, China is a country which will grow old before it grows rich. Chen is a reminder not only of his government’s brutality but its folly in defying the laws of economic growth.

Chen Guangcheng’s fate now depends upon negotiations between two governments who both wish that he would step under a truck. But there is a way to support him. Nominate him for the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Population Award “outstanding contributions to increasing the awareness of population questions”.

In the past the prize has been given to odious family planning apparatchiks and to dictators like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Indonesian President Suharto. Its inaugural recipients, in 1983, were Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, after her notorious campaign for forced sterilization in the 1970s, and Qian Xinzhong, an architect of China’s one-child policy. 

An avalanche of nominations for Chen Guangcheng would show that the world has finally repudiated one of the most despicable, senseless violations of human rights ever implemented by a government against its own people. Click on this link to download an official nomination form.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. This article first appeared on MercatorNet and is reprinted under a Creative Commons license.