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Who Controls the Family?
Blind Activist Leads Peasants in Legal Challenge To Abuses of China's Population-Growth Policy

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 27, 2005

LINYI, China -- A crowd of disheveled villagers was waiting when Chen Guangcheng stepped out of the car. More women than men among them, a mix of desperation and hope on their faces, they ushered him along a dirt path and into a nearby house. Then, one after another, they told him about the city's campaign against "unplanned births."

Since March, the farmers said, local authorities had been raiding the homes of families with two children and demanding at least one parent be sterilized. Women pregnant with a third child were forced to have abortions. And if people tried to hide, the officials jailed their relatives and neighbors, beating them and holding them hostage until the fugitives turned themselves in.

Chen, 34, a slender man wearing dark sunglasses, held out a digital voice recorder and listened intently. Blind since birth, he couldn't see the tears of the women forced to terminate pregnancies seven or eight months along, or the blank stares of the men who said they submitted to vasectomies to save family members from torture. But he could hear the pain and anger in their voices and said he was determined to do something about it.

For weeks, Chen has been collecting testimony about the population-control abuses in this city of 10 million, located about 400 miles southeast of Beijing, beginning in his own village in the rural suburbs, then traveling from one community to the next. Now he is preparing an unlikely challenge to the crackdown: a class-action lawsuit.

"What these officials are doing is completely illegal," Chen said. "They've committed widespread violations of citizens' basic rights, and they should be held responsible."

It might appear a quixotic crusade -- a blind peasant with limited legal training taking on the Communist Party's one-child policy, which has long been considered a pillar of the nation's economic development strategy and off-limits to public debate. But the Linyi case marks a legal milestone in challenging the coercive measures used for decades to limit population growth in China.

While there have been scattered cases of individuals suing family planning officials, legal scholars say the Linyi farmers appear to be the first to band together and challenge the state's power to compel people to undergo sterilization or abort a pregnancy since the enactment of a 2002 law guaranteeing citizens an "informed choice" in such matters.

"The population and family planning law affects everyone's individual rights, so a case like this is an important test," said Zhan Zhongle, a law professor at Beijing University who helped draft the legislation. "By suing the government, the Linyi peasants are merely asserting their legal rights. Whether the courts accept the case, and how they handle it, will be a test of China's justice system and of whether China can govern according to law."

Forced abortions and compulsory sterilization, though never openly endorsed by the government, have been an element of China's family planning practices since at least 1980, when the national population topped 1 billion and the party concluded that unchecked growth could undermine economic development and launched the one-child policy. But resistance has always been widespread, especially in the countryside, where farmers depend on children to help in the fields and support them in their old age.

As rural anger mounted and international criticism of such practices grew, the party began experimenting in the mid-1990s with less coercive methods, expanding health services for women, providing more information about contraception and implementing regulations barring involuntary sterilization and abortion. The government adopted the law granting citizens the right to make an "informed choice" in family planning, and in recent years it has moved toward a system of economic rewards for couples with only one child and fines or fees for those with more.

But many local officials continue to rely on forced abortion and sterilization, in part because the ability to limit population growth remains a top consideration in party deliberations about promotions and raises. In much of China, an official who misses a population target, even if he or she excels in other fields, is dismissed, according to researchers and family planning officials.

In Linyi, residents said local officials ordered couples to come in for sterilization even if they had been given permission to have a second child. Women with intrauterine birth-control devices were not exempt.

Du Dehong, 33, a corn farmer in Yinghu village, said seven officials showed up at her home on the night of May 9, pushed her into a small white van and took her to the county family planning station. They ordered her to fill out a form, and when she refused, one of the men grabbed her hand and forced her to leave a fingerprint.

"He said, 'Even if you stay here and resist for three days, we're going to operate on you eventually,' " Du recalled. She said she relented, and the operation took just 10 minutes.

A few days later, she and her husband sought out Chen. Over the years, their blind neighbor had earned a reputation as someone who understood the law -- and would stand up to the government.

In 1996, he had traveled to Beijing with a complaint about his family's taxes. He won a refund and admission to a university to study acupuncture and massage, the only higher education courses available to the blind in China. He took law classes on the side, and then began campaigning for the rights of the disabled and farmers.

When neighbors told him about the family planning abuses, he proposed a lawsuit. Word spread quickly, and Chen emerged as the leader of the battle against the forced abortion and sterilization campaign.

On a recent visit to Maxiagou village, in another rural part of Linyi, he interviewed Feng Zhongxia, 36. She recounted that she was seven months pregnant and on the run when she learned that local officials had detained more than a dozen of her relatives and wouldn't release them unless she returned for an abortion.

"My aunts, uncles, cousins, my pregnant younger sister, my in-laws, they were all taken to the family planning office," she said. "Many of them didn't get food or water, and all of them were severely beaten." Some of the relatives were allowed to call her, and they pleaded with her to come home.

Feng called the family planning officials. "They told me they would peel the skin off my relatives and I would only see their corpses if I didn't come back," she said. The next day, she turned herself in. A doctor examined her, then stuck a needle into her uterus. About 24 hours later, she delivered the dead fetus. "It was a small life," she said quietly.

Afterward, she said, the family planning workers insisted on sterilizing her, too. "I'm a human being. How can they treat me like that?" she asked.

Chen sat listening to and recording the peasants' stories for several hours. Some described midnight raids on their homes involving as many as 30 officials and hired thugs. Others recalled being held in rooms crowded with more than 50 other villagers, including children, adding that the officials charged them exorbitant fees for food and "study sessions" when they were released.

The last to speak was Mei Shouqin, 42, who can no longer walk up a flight of stairs because of a botched tubal ligation. When the doctor explained what had gone wrong, he didn't apologize, she recalled. He just said she needed to return in a month so he could try again.

Liu Chuanyu, a Linyi family planning official reached by phone, denied knowledge of the abuses. "All of our work is done according to national policy and the demands of upper-level officials," he said. Other local family planning officials reached by phone declined to give their names and also denied any wrongdoing.

But Yu Xuejin, a senior official with the national family planning commission in Beijing, said his office had received complaints about abuses in Linyi and asked provincial authorities to investigate. He said the practices described by the farmers, including forced sterilization and abortion, were "definitely illegal."

Yu emphasized that the central government had led the nation toward more humane family planning practices over the past decade. "If the Linyi complaints are true, or even partly true, it's because local officials do not understand the new demands of the Chinese leadership regarding family planning work," he said.

Yu also applauded the farmers for asserting their rights. If officials in Linyi violated the law, he said, "I support the ordinary people. If they need help, we'll help them find lawyers."

But back in Linyi, Chen said progress had been slow. State media have been afraid to report on the crackdown, and without the publicity, he has been unable to raise funds.

At the same time, he said, local officials have visited him three times and urged him to persuade the farmers to drop the lawsuit. He said one warned him that "offending the government isn't good," and said if any officials were fired because of his lawsuit, "they might try to take revenge."

But Chen said he wasn't backing down. "If you've violated the law, you must take responsibility," he said. "If we withdraw the lawsuit, then they'll just violate the law again next time."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company