Sunday, 1 September 2013

Chen Guangcheng, a privilege that comes once in a lifetime

“Government Ministers might be afraid of the Chinese Government, but I am not afraid of the Chinese Government!” This statement came from a blind man, tortured and imprisoned for four years and then placed under house arrest because of his strenuous efforts to save women from forced abortions under China’s ‘One Child Policy’. Chen Guangcheng, a blind, self-taught lawyer, recently arrived in London from his exile in the United States, to receive the first Westminster Award as a token of his battle to promote ‘human life, human rights and human dignity’.

Chen entered the Grand Committee Room at the palace of Westminster to a standing ovation. He was accompanied by his wife, Yuan Weijing, and an interpreter, Pastor “Bob” Xiqiu Fu, who was himself an escapee from Tiananmen Square and the founder of China Aid, "an international non-profit Christian human rights organization committed to promoting religious freedom and the rule of law in China."

Chen gave a moving account of the effects of life under China’s Communist Party, where human life has little or no value. He broke down in tears before the invited audience as he described the forced abortions which take place in their tens of thousands. Gendercide and infanticide are normal, everyday occurrences, accompanying the abortions which happen because a couple already has one child and has not received permission for a second.

In this country, a few months ago, we heard of the newborn, found alive, her placenta still attached, in a plastic bag in a dustbin, her throat cut. We also heard of the woman whose full-term baby was left at her side to remind her not to become pregnant again. The media in this country also reported the story of the woman whose baby was aborted because she became pregnant and whose husband was arrested, beaten and imprisoned for having made her pregnant, but these were only the minute tip of the iceberg. We did not learn whether or not there were reprisals against whoever managed to take those stories to the outside world.

Interrupted by his tears, Chen related the account of a woman, arrested under the One-child policy, whose 3 year-old daughter was deliberately locked into the house, so that she starved to death in spite of the mother’s frantic pleas to feed the little girl. Eventually neighbours found the child’s body 21 days later, alerted by the smell from the house. She had worn her fingers to the bone in trying to escape through iron security bars. Eventually, she starved.

When did Chen first learn of the forced abortions and sterilisations? “It was unavoidable. I first became aware of them in 1979 as I was growing up. Then by 1982-83, they were happening everywhere so it is impossible to name any particular source. They were so common.”

It was the injustice of China’s One-child policy which inspired Chen to study law and to fight for justice for families suffering at the hands of the Communist Party. “Even when I was a small child, I realised that a dictatorship does not reason with you. It was difficult to get hold of law books. One book can change a whole village, but even for that one book, it is extremely difficult to obtain a copy.”

Chen Guangcheng, who escaped extra-legal house arrest in Shandong, would be unknown to most people in Britain had not he and his family succeeded in taking refuge in the American Embassy in Beijing, from whence, in 2012, they travelled to Washington. Chen’s story includes four years of imprisonment and two further years of house arrest. Perhaps, in the Chinese Government’s attempts to silence him, the world heard his voice ever more loudly, especially when, in an effort to force Chen’s cooperation, his wife was also repeatedly beaten. Yet at a press conference in London, he declared that “Persecution, imprisonment and torture are a small matter. There were other things that are much harder to tell.”

News of his strenuous defence of human life and rights reached across the world. It was for that reason that he was considered the ideal person to receive the Westminster Award, established in honour of the late Phyllis Bowman, foundress of the Right to Life Charitable Trust.

Fr. Alan Rabjohns, Chairman of the Trust, who was unable to attend the event because of illness, said, “It was so right that this award should be presented in memory of Phyllis Bowman, firstly because she had campaigned on Mr. Chen's behalf in 2011, but also because they were similar characters. She would not be put off by any opposition and was unwavering in her defence of the unborn and this commitment to truth and right is reflected in the life and action of Mr Chen, a truly worthy first recipient of this award.”

John Cotter, a Trustee of Right to Life added, “It was an enormous privilege to be in the company of this exceptionally brave and heroic man, who sacrificed his own safety, and that of his family, in order to protect the victims of China's cruel one-child policy. Chen might have been blind since he was a small child but his depth of spiritual vision is something to inspire wonder and admiration.”

Lord David Alton, one of Britain’s foremost campaigners on behalf of the sacredness of human life, addressed the packed Grand Committee Room attached to Westminster Hall. “While others remained silent, Chen courageously dared to speak out against China's coercive One-child policy  which has led to 330 million abortions and to 37 million more men than women. Today, in China, the three most dangerous words are “It's a girl.””

“Chen's stand against this  egregious violation of human rights led to four years imprisonment, then to house arrest, and then to a death-defying escape from China. Today, Chen's relatives, whom he had to leave behind, continue to be intimidated and attacked by local officials.”
“It took this blind man to see and to challenge what political leaders chose not to see. His bravery and his suffering, in the cause of human rights and human dignity, shames those who implemented these polices and those in the West who have aided and abetted them.”

Lord Alton concluded, “While Chen Guangchen was incarcerated... I travelled to China and told senior Chinese officials that I thought that one day Chen would be seen as a national hero. It was striking that no one contradicted me or shouted me down. Of course, many officials have suffered under these policies too. Hardly anyone in China is unaffected. But, while others remained silent it was Chen who had the bravery to speak out and to challenge this inhumane, misguided and cruel policy.”

Interestingly, although Chen received several standing ovations during the presentation, gave several media interviews and met a number of Parliamentarians, not one Cabinet Member met him, in spite of invitations. As Chris Whitehouse remarked that, at this particular time, “Economics seem to be more important than human life.” For those of us for whom life comes before the economy, meeting Chen Guangcheng was a privilege that comes once in a lifetime.