Global Campaign to Free Detained Chinese Activist Is Helping, U.S. Lawmakers Are Told

By Patrick Goodenough | December 7, 2011 | 5:01am EST

Chen Guangcheng, a blind activist in China who exposed abuses under the government's one-child policy, has been under house arrest since his release from prison in September 2010. (AP Photo.)

( – Chinese authorities have slightly relaxed the house arrest restrictions placed on an activist who exposed extensive forced abortion and sterilization linked to the “one-child” policy, an American human rights advocate told U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday.

Testifying at a Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) hearing, Women’s Rights Without Frontiers president Reggie Littlejohn cited a Chinese source as attributing the small improvement to the “huge public attention” Chen Guangcheng’s situation has received, both inside China and abroad.

Chen, who is blind, has together with his wife, Yuan Weijing, been confined to their home near Linyi in Shandong province since his release from prison in September 2010. He had been incarcerated for four years for “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic,” although his real transgression, according to supporters, was his exposure of radical abuses under China’s controversial birth-limitation policy.

Since last February, attempts by friends and supporters to visit him have been blocked by local officials, police officers and thugs, sometimes violently.

Women’s Rights Without Frontiers president Reggie Littlejohn. (Photo: WRWF)

Littlejohn told the hearing that she had learned from a source in China – a “key activist” who requested anonymity – that Chen’s mother has now been allowed to leave food for him, accompanied by guards. The source said some relatives have been allowed to visit Chen’s mother and “deliver some items under surveillance,” and that Chen’s health was improving. (He reportedly suffer from an intestinal ailment contracted in prison.)

Last October, Chen supporters in China launched a Web site inviting people to submit photographs of themselves wearing sunglasses in a gesture of solidarity with Chen who, being blind, usually wears them.

Women’s Rights Without Frontiers then launched a parallel effort outside China.

Littlejohn told the CECC hearing that the Chinese source had called the sunglasses campaign “very helpful,” but had also stressed that the slightly improved conditions faced by the activist were not a reason to relax the campaign calling for his immediate freedom.

“The Chinese Communist Party has attempted to silence Chen, but they cannot silence the voices of millions in China crying for his freedom,” she said. “The report that Chen is alive and in improved condition should not be a reason to relax efforts on his behalf.  To the contrary, these efforts are having an impact and should intensify until Chen is free.

Littlejohn urged U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke and diplomats from other Western democracies that have human rights dialogues with Beijing to seek access to Chen and his wife.

CECC chairman Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) has been aiming to travel to China in order to visit Chen, but he said last month he had been denied a visa.

‘If it’s not okay in the U.S. it’s not okay in China’

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China’s population-control policy generally restricts couples to having one child. Exceptions are made in some cases – for example some rural dwellers and ethnic minority couples are permitted a second child if their firstborn is a girl. Violators risk prohibitive fines, loss of jobs – or worse, as Chen discovered in his home city.

In 2005, he said he had learned that officials in Linyi were coercing parents of two children to be sterilized, while women carrying a third baby were forced to have abortions. Thousands of people were allegedly affected.

After his attempts to help affected couples bring a class-action lawsuit faltered, allegations about the abuses were posted on the Internet and handed to foreign media organizations.

As a result of the publicity, the central government’s family planning commission investigated, and announced in September of that year that it had found Linyi officials had violated citizens’ civil rights. Some had been dismissed while others were detained or under investigation, it said.

Chen faced harassment, assaults and was confined to his house by local authority officials.

In February 2006, Chen’s cousin and a friend tried to visit him and were assaulted by police. A crowd of several hundred local supporters then gathered, clashed with police and overturned a police vehicle.

Chen was accused of instigating the incident, and in August 2006 he was sentenced to four years and three months’ imprisonment.

Littlejohn on Tuesday submitted to the CECC a report on some of the findings from Chen’s 2005 investigation.

Last August, Vice President Joe Biden came under fire after telling a Chinese audience, “Your policy has been one which I fully understand – I’m not second-guessing – of one child per family.” He made no reference to coercion and abuses, saying only that the policy was “not sustainable” economically.

After criticism from Republicans Biden’s office said in a statement, “The Obama administration strongly opposes all aspects of China’s coercive birth limitation policies, including forced abortion and sterilization. The vice president believes such practices are repugnant.”

During Tuesday’s hearing, Littlejohn responded to a question about “double standards” in Western policy when dealing with China by pointing to Biden’s “not second-guessing” remark.

“If it’s not okay in the United States it’s not okay in China either,” she said. “That statement really undermined the moral credibility of the United States on the world international scene.”

The CECC comprises members of the U.S. House and Senate, and representatives of the Department of State and others.

The hearing was timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel peace prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

The scholar and democracy activist was sentenced in December 2009 to an 11-year jail term after being convicted of “inciting subversion of state power.”

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