China’s One-Child Problem

Times Staff Writer

When a self-taught lawyer and activist named Chen Guangcheng went public with reports of forced abortions and other abuses by family-planning officials in China’s Shandong province, he became a local hero.

He also became a state threat.

Roughly a year later, despite international pressure, widespread support from lawyers and an acknowledgment from national officials that many of his disclosures were accurate, the 35-year-old Chen remains in custody.

His case stands as a warning that being right is not a sure defense in a system wary of any challenge to its authority.


On Monday, the blind activist’s wife was interrogated and one of his supporters beaten, the latest in a series of moves apparently designed to intimidate and punish Chen for exposing forced abortions and sterilization under China’s one-child campaign, one of his lawyers said.

Chen, villagers and his lawyers say tens of thousands of women and men were subjected to forced abortions and obligatory sterilization in and around Linyi, a municipal area with about 10 million people, in order to meet stringent quotas under the one-child campaign.

National family-planning officials insist most population programs are not coercive and say the one-child effort has helped elevate millions from poverty by ensuring more resources are available for the nation’s vast population, currently more than 1.3 billion.

Despite its name, China’s one-child system is a patchwork of rules under the umbrella of a national policy. Minority communities receive automatic exemptions. Urban parents who both come from one-child families can have a second offspring, as can farmers whose first child is a girl. Some pay fines to have more children.

But Beijing, which says the policy has prevented about 400 million births since its introduction in 1979, continues to pressure local areas on overall targets, spurring abuses.

“The current family-planning policy must be kept basically stable, a fundamental measure to cope with the fourth baby boom in the next five years,” Zhang Weiqing, director of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, said in April.


Although other regions have seen forced abortions, activists say the abuses in Linyi were unusual because local authorities took villagers within the area hostage. When women fled to avoid losing their babies, lawyers and residents say, officials seized their parents, nephews or cousins as leverage, hoping to force the women to return.

Liang Suhe, a villager in Banqiao, said he was detained with his wife for a month last year because her brother and sister-in-law were planning to have a third child and authorities couldn’t find her.

“We were both beaten up, but my wife was beaten harder,” he said. “Her waist and her back still hurt periodically.”

The officials wouldn’t believe Liang when he told them he didn’t know where his in-laws were, forcing him to make a 10-day trip to northeastern China in search of the couple. When he returned without his in-laws, Liang was detained again. He still doesn’t know their whereabouts, he said.

A woman who would only give her family name as Wang said one of her husband’s relatives had two girls and got pregnant last year in hopes of having a boy. When family-planning officials couldn’t track her down, they detained Wang and her husband, Xia Jingshan. Wang said that she was released quickly but that her husband was kept for almost a week.

“They beat him with a leather stick until he couldn’t breathe,” she said. “He was beaten so hard he could barely walk, but the officials propped him up and forced him to go looking for his relatives anyway. He still feels pain in his waist on cloudy or rainy days.”


Fearful that Xia would be beaten to death, the pregnant relative returned and submitted to the abortion, even though she was eight months pregnant, Wang said.

“It was a baby boy, and his hair was already very dark,” Wang said. “The couple was so sad.”

On Monday, Chen’s wife and Hu Jia, a noted activist on HIV/AIDS issues and a Chen supporter, were walking toward Chen’s house when more than 30 people surrounded Hu and beat him for half an hour, according to Teng Biao, Chen’s lead lawyer. “His arm is hurt, but I don’t know how bad,” he said.

When the police arrived late into the beating, they made no attempt to stop the assailants, Teng said. Instead they took away Chen’s wife, Yuan Weijing, for questioning.

A police officer at Shuanghou police station in Linyi said Monday that there was no report of a beating or of Chen’s wife being interrogated. The official, who refused to give his name, said, “I don’t know anything,” before hanging up.

Chen, who lost his sight as an infant, studied law but wasn’t allowed to graduate because of his handicap. With his limited training, the “barefoot lawyer” helped villagers with legal issues. Last year, his population-control report and subsequent offer to help villagers file lawsuits made him a hero in Linyi.


Those who know him speak of a gentle, persistent man with a keen sense of right and wrong. “He’s blind, but he has a light born of justice,” said Zhao Xin, a lawyer. “Friends from all over China have pitched in to help him.”

His work has earned him recognition farther afield. Amnesty International has supported his case, as have U.N. officials and foreign governments. And Time magazine honored him as one of “2006’s Top 100 People Who Shape Our World,” along with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Shandong officials aren’t impressed. After Chen went public with the allegations, supporters say, officials went on the offensive.

In China, where rule of law is weak and the one-party state is keen to smother political challenges, local governments have wide leeway to “maintain order” as they see fit, including the use of threats, intimidation and vaguely worded legal charges.

In August, Shandong officials dragged Chen back from Beijing and put him under house arrest, where he was reportedly beaten and prevented from obtaining medical treatment.

In March, while trying to report the beating of a family member, Chen disappeared only to reappear three months later in police custody. In June, he was formally arrested on charges of destroying public property and “inciting people to disrupt traffic.”


Chen released a statement from prison via his lawyers last month saying police had repeatedly threatened and abused him and warned him that he could die in detention if he didn’t confess to the charges.

Although Beijing recently announced added restrictions on lawyers who represent protesters, Chen’s case has attracted more than a dozen Chinese lawyers working without pay.

At a restaurant in Beijing this month, a handful of them gathered in a private room to consider the case. Whenever the door opened, a few would glance up warily.

The lawyers say they are following a two-pronged approach, building one case for the courts and a second for the media. They hope public support might force stubborn local authorities to reconsider their heavy-handed campaign against a handicapped person concerned with social injustice.

“On the surface this may look like an ordinary case,” said Li Jianqiang, another of Chen’s lawyers. “But this is actually a government taking revenge on an individual.”

Lawyers say the central government would be on their side if it knew the whole story, but they believe it has been lied to by local officials.


Central family-planning authorities in Beijing launched an investigation of local practices after Chen aired the alleged abuses. In September, they acknowledged there were problems with the program in Linyi and said some officials had been dismissed. But villagers suspect a whitewash.

Several of the lawyers representing Chen say they have been harassed, roughed up, threatened or detained.

Villagers helped by Chen hope he is released soon.

“We really owe him,” Liang said.

“If it was not for him, we would have had no chance to get justice. He’s the savior of us common villagers.”