By Stephanie Brown,
The tale of blind Chinese rights activist Chen Guangcheng’s recent escape from Chinese authorities and hastily arranged, politically-charged move to the United States was widely reported by the media last month and continues to make international headlines.
After four years of imprisonment and two years of harsh treatment under house arrest, Guangcheng climbed over a wall and fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing with the help of a family he’d aided in the past. Six days later, Guangcheng left the embassy in response to threats against his family.
Guangcheng’s reappearance created a tense political situation between China and the U.S., as U.S. officials had refused to disclose Guangcheng’s whereabouts after his escape. To defuse the situation, the U.S. ultimately offered Guangcheng an NYU fellowship, allowing Chinese officials to approve Guangcheng’s request to leave China without having to admit to Guangcheng’s allegations of human rights abuses.
On May 20, Guangcheng and his family arrived in the United States and settled into University life. A happy ending, right?
That depends on which story you’re reading. Chen Guangcheng is free, which is something to celebrate. The media, with their love of sensationalism, would have you believe that the story ends there.
But there’s a larger story, in which the Guangcheng family is only one of millions of other families suffering human rights abuses in China.
In 2005, Guangcheng helped bring Chinese authorities’ use of violent forced abortions and sterilizations under the One Child Policy to international attention. He was arrested the following year.
Under the One Child Policy, women who have already given birth to one child but become pregnant again must abort the baby. The Chinese government reports that this policy has prevented over 400 million births since its introduction in 1978. What the government doesn’t admit is that authorities often use illegal, invasive, and brutal methods to prevent these births.
Many women, especially in rural areas, are regularly subjected to vaginal “checks” to ensure that they have not secretly given birth. Some are forced to undergo dangerous sterilization procedures. Those who resist these procedures or refuse to abort a child are punished severely, often beaten or imprisoned for days without food or water. Women who evade capture soon give themselves up, as the authorities torture their relatives instead. Even women who submit to forced abortions and sterilizations are at risk because the procedure can be dangerous, particularly for women who have undergone previous abortions.
Women in these situations have very few places to turn for help. Charity organizations set up to assist pregnant women and new families are harassed by government officials to ensure that no woman with an “illegal” pregnancy receives aid, and hospital staff are often overworked and impersonal. It takes a lot of courage to speak out against the government, as Guangcheng did. For his heroism, Guangcheng was imprisoned for six years and was forced to watch his family suffer.
Guangcheng and his family escaped. But for the countless other families still at risk, the story is far from over. The One Child Policy was implemented to slow China’s population growth, but it has also become a weapon that corrupt officials can wield against the very people they are meant to protect.
Forced abortion and sterilization will continue until the Chinese government receives pressure to stop these practices. Upon his arrival in the U.S., Guangcheng asked everyone to help him “promote justice and fairness in China,” by working together to “fight for the goodness in the world.”
For more information, visit Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.