The initiative revolves around Chen Guangcheng, a legal activist who with his wife has been confined to his home since his release from prison in September 2010.
Chen, who is blind, angered authorities by drawing attention to large-scale, forced sterilization of Chinese parents and the abortions of babies conceived in violation of the official “one-child” policy.
He served four years’ imprisonment for “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic,” but rights campaigners say Chinese officials frequently find pretexts to punish individuals in cases where the real “offense” is potentially politically sensitive.
Awareness of Chen’s plight has been growing in recent months, as news spread that local officials and thugs have prevented friends, colleagues and journalists – sometimes using force – from visiting the couple at their village home near Linyi in Shandgong province. Chen also reportedly has been badly beaten by officials on several occasions.
His case was raised during a recent Capitol Hill press conference on the state of Chinese human rights, with Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) describing his incarceration as “a very aggressive house arrest.”
Last week, news that a Hollywood studio has selected Linyi as a location for a comedy it has started shooting prompted criticism, both on the Internet inside China and abroad.
In a press release, Relativity Media announced that shooting had begun in Linyi Wednesday of the film “21 and Over,” a movie it described in part as “a wild epic misadventure of debauchery and mayhem.”
It quoted the city’s senior Communist Party official as calling the chief executive of the movie studio a “good friend.” The release said the filming “will mark the first of many projects that Relativity plans to shoot and do post-production work on in China.”
Advocacy group Women’s Rights Without Frontiers called on Relativity Media to move the shoot to another location, or face the possibility of a boycott once the movie is released.
“Out of the thousands of locations in China, why was Linyi targeted?” asked the group’s president, Reggie Littlejohn.
“While Relativity Media is creating a ‘wild epic misadventure,’ about beer-drinking and debauchery, Chen Guangcheng is suffering unspeakable torment – beaten, tortured, denied medical treatment and being slowly starved to death – right under their noses.”
If the studio did not relent, Littlejohn said, the organization would call for a boycott, to “send a message that filmgoers of conscience will not support a movie that is made in flagrant disregard of one of the world’s greatest human rights heroes.”
Queries sent to the studio on Saturday brought no response.
Earlier this month, a project launched inside China began calling on people to send in photographs of themselves wearing sunglasses – being blind, Chen often wears them – for posting on a Web site in support of the activist.
Now there are plans to take that idea outside China as well.
Littlejohn said Sunday the campaign would “support the brave people inside China who are putting their lives on the line to press for Chen’s freedom. There is a surge of people trying to visit his village, even though they know that they will be beaten and detained.”
She urged people around the world to send in photos of themselves wearing sunglasses for posting, “to encourage the Chinese people and send a message to the Chinese Communist Party: People from every land are deeply concerned about Chen and want him to be free.”
Littlejohn described Chen as “the very heart and soul of China – the conscience of the nation. He has come to symbolize the brutal truth about human rights in China.”
In March 2005, Chen said he first learned that officials in Linyi were forcing parents of two children to be sterilized, while women carrying their third baby were compelled to have abortions. Thousands of people were allegedly affected by the officials' actions.
Chen offered to help affected couples bring a class-action lawsuit against the authorities, but faced legal hurdles along the way. Then allegations about the forced sterilization and abortion were posted on the Internet and passed on to foreign media organizations.
The adverse publicity led to an investigation by the central government’s National Family Planning and Population Commission, which in Sept. 2005 announced it had found that Linyi officials had violated citizens’ civil rights. It said some had been dismissed while others were detained or under investigation.
Despite the exoneration, Chen was harassed, assaulted and confined to his house.
The criminal charges arose from an incident in February 2006, when Chen’s cousin and another person tried to visit him and were assaulted by police. A crowd of several hundred locals supportive of Chen then gathered, clashed with police and overturned a police vehicle.
The state accused Chen of instigating the unrest, and in August 2006 he was sentenced to four years and three months’ imprisonment.