Chen Guangcheng and his faithful supporters

Let’s face it, gentle readers, if I am going to be corrected — something that happens to all of us from time to time — it really helps to be corrected by one of the best in the business. I am referring to Pamela Constable of the foreign desk at The Washington Post.

To understand the context for my correction, let’s start with the following reference in my post that ran with the headline, “Chen Guangcheng, generic human-rights activist,” which focused on the fact that Chen is more than a generic activist who is backed by a generic “activist network.”

I stand by that emphasis in the piece. However, I also wrote:

This generic activist, you see, is actually a pro-life activist, the kind of Christian activist who sees China’s often brutal one-child policy as a violation of human rights as well as religious liberty. The abortion angle in this story has begun to show up in some mainstream media reports. …

That’s close, but not accurate. It appears that we can strike the word “Christian.”

However, before we move on let me note that a reader who is active in human-rights issues wrote in with some interesting information related to this issue. He pointed GetReligion readers toward an article in the Far Eastern Economic Review — headline, “Faith and Law In China” (.pdf) — which argues that the “weiquan movement” for human rights, in which Chen is a highly visible leader, includes many Chinese Christians and draws much of its support from Christian groups and networks.

It is also true that Chen’s most public supporter, Bob Fu, is a Christian pastor and leader in a Christian network that is at the forefront of support for the blind Chinese activist. I mentioned Fu and his network in my post, because of an op-ed piece he wrote for the Post.

Now, Constable has headed down to West Texas in order to contribute a timely news feature about Fu that contains tons of information shedding light on the work of pro-Chen activists. Right up top readers learn:

In the past 72 hours, Fu has become an international media figure at the center of the most sensational human rights crisis in China in a decade. It erupted when blind lawyer and dissident Chen Guangcheng fled house arrest and took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing — just as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was arriving this week for critical and wide-ranging talks with Chinese officials.

Fu, who helped engineer Chen’s escape and describes himself as Chen’s “ambassador,” has since been besieged with media calls, rumors and tips in half a dozen languages. At 6 a.m. Wednesday, American officials called Fu from Beijing to inform him that Chen had made a deal with Chinese authorities — a deal that appeared to quickly unravel. Now, Fu is rushing to Washington to testify on Capitol Hill about Chen’s unfolding case.

“Bob is our hero, but before this we were mostly below the radar. Now everyone in the world is trying to reach him,” said Celia Harris, the white-haired secretary at China Aid. Like many local supporters, she is a member of the large Christian community church in Midland that helped Fu settle when he fled China in 1997. He is now a pastor there as well as the founder and director of China Aid.

As you would expect from a reporter who has long dug into the religion angles of her stories, Constable quickly notes the role of faith in the very familiar outline of Fu’s life and work. He became a Christian after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, was arrested in 1996 while teaching in secret Bible schools and fled to the United States when his wife failed to obtain a pregnancy permit (and thus faced a forced abortion).

This brings us to a crucial piece of information, which I assume comes directly from Fu, a highly authoritative source on such matters.

Fu was born in the same rural province as Chen, who is not Christian but who has long been a passionate and outspoken opponent of Beijing’s policy of forced sterilizations and abortions. The issue is at the heart of U.S. religious groups’ criticism of China.

“I always felt a natural connection with Chen,” said Fu, speaking in short snatches between a barrage of phone calls late Tuesday. The queries intensified as midnight approached and rumors swirled across the Internet that Chen was about to make a deal. “I chose a peaceful life in the United States, but he believed the system in China could change, and he wanted to stay and be part of it, even after suffering so much. He believes that a million ants can move a hill. He is a symbol of courage for all of us.”

By all means, read on. It’s good to know that Fu, like Chen, is not a simplistic China basher. He is skeptical, yet also hopeful. At the moment, however, he greatly fears for the safety of Chen, his family and the network of Chinese activist — Christians and others — who have risked so much to help Chen.

As the tense negotiations continue, here is a key element for which to watch in future coverage. Chinese authorities tend to define “religious freedom” in terms of what happens in churches. Clearly, the religious opponents of the one-child policies have a much broader view, one in which religious freedom is part of a larger package of human rights that must be defended.

Often, the kinds of people who work in the U.S. State Department (and not just in the current administration) tend to view this stance as rather idealistic, if not naive.

Stay tuned. Meanwhile, my thanks to Constable and the Post for her fine story.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.