Human rights activist, at Princeton, discusses China’s one-child policy, religious repression
Totalitarian regimes pose the greatest threat to human civilization, and the free world’s number-one priority should be their demise, said Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng in a public address at Princeton University on Oct. 16.
Chen, who came to the world’s attention in 2012 after escaping house arrest in his native China, gave the talk as the newly appointed Distinguished Senior Fellow in Human Rights at the Witherspoon Institute’s William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution.
The 41-year-old activist clashed with authorities in China over its one-child-per-family policy and the forced abortions and sterilizations that have occurred in its enforcement. He began documenting such abuses in 2005 and organized class-action litigation against the government’s enforcement of the policy. In 2006 he began a four-year prison sentence, after which he remained under house arrest.
He has not softened his stance since coming to the United States and serving for one year as a fellow at New York University’s School of Law. Before the Princeton audience, he lamented that the situation has changed little since he began his work.
“The more heartbreaking and infuriating thing is that, eight years later, in China today, this kind of systematic anti-human crime is still happening in an organized manner under the leadership of the Communist Party,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. “At 4 AM on September 27, a group of 20 officials from the Family Planning Commission, including 16 men and four women, forced their way into the home of Zhou Guoqiang and his wife, Liu Xinwen, a couple in Weifang, Shandong Province, while they were sleeping. They kicked down the door of the family’s home, held down Zhou Guoqiang and dragged his wife to a hospital by force for an abortion. A six-month baby was killed by a poisonous injection in the mother’s womb. It is more accurate to say that the baby died of the evil system rather than the poisonous injection. Let’s imagine how the parents must have felt when they saw their child being killed and yet they could do nothing to stop it. Reading this news report brought back to my memory the stories and the crying of those helpless women in 2005.”
In an interview afterwards, Chen said the issue of abortion in China is different from the question over its legality in the United States. “I want to emphasize the issue of forced abortion. In Chinese society, the negative impact of forced abortion is very clear. Besides causing a problem with an aging population and an imbalanced gender ratio, it’s also an issue of undervaluing life. It is done so frequently that the concept of the importance or sacredness of human life is diluted.”
In his talk, he called on Americans to urge elected officials “to apply all resources and means to help terminate China’s evil one-child policy and forced abortions. Forcing women to abort their babies is a violation of universal human rights. It tramples on women’s rights, the right of free choice, and also the sacred right of life.” He suggested that “judicial and administrative organizations join hands in establishing a deterrent mechanism for human-rights violators,” such as setting up a global database of such violators, including family planning commission officials complicit in forced abortions.
In a response following the talk, Arthur Waldron, a China expert from the University of Pennsylvania, said that forced abortion has been “imposed on innumerable women in China.” He urged listeners who want to know more about it to read a new novel by Chinese author Ma Jian,
The Dark Road. “It is a harrowing read, but it’s essential because it’s no less than the truth,” he commented.
Chen’s talk also took aim at China’s persistent repression of religious freedom. He expressed the hope that the U.S. government demand that China stop religious persecution and ensure religious freedom.
“One hundred twenty Tibetan monks have immolated themselves. People in Xinjiang fighting against tyranny have been shot, one after another,” he continued. “And we all know the indescribable persecution Falun Gong practitioners have suffered. Nonofficial, independent Christian house churches and Catholic churches are still being restricted or outlawed by the government.” Chen’s interpreter said he has no religious affiliation.
In general, he said, Chinese society has “regressed nearly to the times of the Cultural Revolution” of 1966-1976. The rule of law has been compromised, and defenders of human rights are subject to kidnapping or house arrest, or “falsely accused of having a mental illness.” He said that on Oct. 9, his brother, still in China, was “almost caught in a deliberate car accident.”
Further, there is no freedom of the press, and the control of the internet is so extensive that Chen terms it a “cyber Berlin wall.” He suggested that the U.S. Congress might double the funding of research for more effective software that breaks through firewalls, thus increasing internet freedom in China.
But discontent is brewing, he added, citing a number of public protests, including a recent one in Guangdong Province where people held signs reading, “Abolish the One-Party Dictatorship!” In response to a growing groundswell of protest, the government now spends more money on maintaining domestic stability than on national defense, he said.
“I call on the governments of democratic countries, especially the United States government, the primary champion of human rights, to set a good example by shifting the focus from economy and trade to human rights, and from price to value, when dealing with dictators,” he said. “Attaching importance to economic interests alone will keep the United States further away from fundamental ideals such as freedom, democracy, and human rights, which are the founding principles of the nation.”
He expressed a hope that President Obama will “not hear only the voice of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Chen had advice for those who are fighting injustice. “When dealing with a government practicing violence and deception, if you don’t try to influence it with your universal values, such as freedom, equality, democracy, and constitutionalism, you are very likely to be affected by the wickedness of this government,” he said. “As a result of such insidious erosion, your heart becomes distorted, and you start to set limits for yourself and give up your principles. It is evident that the humanitarian and human rights issues that happen in any part of the world will invade and become the content of our lives, and may even directly affect our lives.
Individuals who feel powerless in facing such a struggle should resist the urge to underestimate themselves. “Every person has infinite strength,” he said. “Every action has an important impact. We must believe in the value of our own actions.”
In an interview during a reception following the talk, Robert George, a Princeton professor who serves as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said he was “delighted” to hear Chen call on the American people to support efforts to “end China’s most abusive policies,” including forced abortion, religious repression and restrictions on free speech.
Chen, who collaborates with the religious freedom commission in its work, has “given us a call to action, and it’s up to us to take his message to our fellow citizens” to resist the totalitarian regime in China “not with the force of arms but with a moral force,” George said.
The talk was co-sponsored by the Witherspoon Institute and the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.
Chen’s Oct. 2 appointment to the Witherspoon Institute, an independent research center in Princeton, N.J. that works to enhance public understanding of the moral foundations of free and democratic societies, was in conjunction with two other appointments: Visiting Fellow of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America and Senior Distinguished Advisor to the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice. All three are three-year appointments.
“My Institute looks at public policy issues from the perspective of what is called Catholic social teaching,” said Stephen Schneck, director of Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, by email Oct. 16. “Human rights and social justice are central features of that teaching, as also is a very ‘Pope Francis’ understanding of governance that puts the person (and especially vulnerable, poor, or marginalized persons) foremost. Chen’s advocacy work for rights and social justice and for putting the person ahead of bureaucracy or profits very much is in accord with the Institute’s work. So, we’re excited to have him as part of our efforts. His work with us will be primarily academic – doing research, working on a book project, and writing on these themes.”
Blind since childhood, Chen is self-taught in law and has come to be known in rural areas of China as the “barefoot lawyer.” He has also advocated the rights of disabled people.
“The Institute is proud to collaborate with these great institutions, making common cause, in our joint support of Mr. Chen, on behalf of freedom and democracy for the Chinese people,” Matthew J. Franck, director of the Witherspoon’s Simon Center, said when the appointment was announced. “It is the institute’s hope that he be able to continue to tell the world the truth about human rights abuses in China.”
“Mr. Chen’s valiant advocacy for human rights in China has awakened the world to the barbarity of China’s one-child policy, and to the cruel reality of forced abortions in China. He has actively campaigned for the rights of women, the poor, and the disabled,” said CUA President John Garvey, at a press conference the day Chen received the triple appointment. “By virtue of our faith in Jesus Christ, we are dedicated to supporting the international struggle for the recognition of human dignity and the protection of basic human rights.”
Chen’s talk can be read at The Public Discourse.