How did a blind Chinese dissident scale the walls of his house while under house arrest, evade government surveillance, travel hundreds of miles to Beijing, seek asylum in the American embassy and in the process shine attention on a horror the world has grown used to? The questions for Chen Guangcheng are legion. Last week I met up with him in London.
Chen, who is 41, has been blind since childhood and wears smart dark glasses. At our meeting place in central London — the headquarters of a Christian organisation which has helped arrange his visit — he sits upright, suited and tied, occasionally repositioning himself by feeling the corners of the table.
He does not share the world’s fascination with his personal story. ‘What I want to tell about my past story most is the rule of law situation in China. It is far worse than the ordinary Briton or the international community has been told by the Chinese propaganda.’
He traces his own awakening about what the Communist party is really like to the 1990s. Having tried to raise awareness of the gruesome realities of the party’s ‘one-child policy’, he met with resistance at the local level. In 1996 he took his petition to the central government and met with the same response. ‘That made me realise it’s the same from local to central. It made me realise it was a mistaken idea that only the local guys are bad guys and the central government guys are good guys.’ The system was rotten throughout.
‘The one-child policy has been very, very, very bad throughout.’ Yet even those cases which have been publicised are, he says, ‘the tip of the iceberg’. The morning before we meet he has received information from his home town of a woman who was nine months pregnant being dragged away and having her baby ‘forcefully aborted’.
What is an ‘abortion’ at nine months? ‘First of all the woman is dragged to the hospital and forced to sign a “consent” form for an abortion. There are several ways. One way is that they force the baby to be induced — born. Usually the baby is born alive and then they would throw the baby into water and drown it. The second way is they have some sort of liquid poison dosage and they directly inject the needle into the head of the baby and kill the baby directly and let the baby come out.’
What is the impact on society of decades of such a policy? ‘The largest impact I want to tell the international community about most is the bankruptcy of the culture of respect for human life. People do not respect life any more. This is not just this policy, this evil practice has not just happened in my home town, it has been everywhere, all over China.’
It is a system of ‘family planning by violence’. ‘There is a unique policy which means that any Communist party government official in a given city or area cannot get any promotion if he failed to carry out the one-child policy.’ Can anybody get around it?
‘There are two scenarios. If the child, the baby, was not born while the mum was hiding, the authorities would capture all her family members and then arbitrarily detain them for several weeks to several months as punishment. So the purpose is to use the family members as hostages to force the hiding pregnant mum to come out, come back to have an abortion. Second, if the baby was born, the family would be forced to pay a very high so-called social maintenance compensation fee. Just a few days ago in a city in Jiangsu Province, a parent who was found with a second baby was forced to pay, but they could not afford that heavy fine so both parents were heavily abused and beaten.’
Chen’s activism brought him to the attention of the government. He suffered — along with his family — years of official intimidation and violence and last year chose to flee. Assisted by friends and family he made it to the US embassy in Beijing and was given asylum with his immediate family. His extended family are still in China and are still persecuted. Why did he choose the American embassy in particular? He is apologetic he did not choose the British one. But he says he knew that ‘America has more strength’.
This subject comes back when I ask him why he thinks it is that, on his visit to the UK, both David Cameron and William Hague have refused to meet with him. He laughs. ‘I think maybe we shouldn’t blame them. They are still very afraid of angering the Chinese Communist party,’ he says. The Communist party will use ‘economic stakes’.
He sees in this, and its consequences, the question and challenge of our time. ‘This is actually a very deep question. If the democratic countries cannot restore their value system, they will not restore their economic prosperity by simply bowing to the dictatorship. Actually I see those who stick to their principles, their stance of human rights, their economies, are actually doing pretty well, like Germany and the Netherlands.’
Perhaps Cameron and Hague think the Chinese Communist party will be in charge permanently. Are they wrong? Is the regime fragile?
‘Actually even the Chinese Communist party would not think they were permanent,’ Chen replies. ‘If they did believe they were permanent, you wouldn’t see this large number of corrupt officials moving their money and assets to the West. No regime can have lasting stability and prosperity if it rules by cracking down on its own people and raping people’s will.’
‘When the time comes, when the Chinese citizens are waking up, when enough people are waking up with their citizens’ consciousness, it will force the Chinese Communist party to give up its power.’ A crucial component here is the state of China’s internet firewall. Chen says more information gets past it than we might expect. ‘So many people hunger for the true information from the outside world, and sooner or later the internet Berlin Wall will be pushed down. In fact the Chinese Communist party are already unable to censor all the information. You will see there are more and more holes being made in that internet Berlin Wall by the Chinese citizens until it collapses completely.’
And what will be his own future? ‘I will continue my fight for human rights in China.’ From inside again, one day? ‘Sure. If we really work hard, it might be sooner. It might be a little slower if we don’t work so hard.’