Chen Guangcheng, generic activist (corrected)

Anyone who has been following the news in recent days has almost certainly read numerous stories about the remarkable blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng and his dark-of-night escape from house arrest.

Truth is, there are too many stories about his work and dramatic escape to review in a single blog post. However, I would like to ask GetReligion readers a rather simple question: Why does Chen do what he does?

In other words, we know that he is an activist and that he is blind. This makes him a blind activist, I guess. However, he is not an activist for the rights of the blind.

Consider the following Washington Post report from several days ago about Chen and his plight. The background language in this report remains rather typical, however.

In the lede, he is identified simply as “blind activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng.” Later, readers are told:

The men who kept Chen contained in his farmhouse, who he says beat him and his wife, and who harassed journalists and activists trying to see him were operating as an extrajudicial force, with no official standing. But they were clearly doing the bidding of local party bosses who wanted to keep Chen silenced and isolated.

When Chen escaped, climbing over a high wall and walking hours alone at night to evade detection, the blind activist had not been linked to any crime. And members of the activist network who assisted Chen — driving him to Beijing, shuttling him around to avoid capture — also were not committing crimes, since Chen was not charged with anything. Yet police have been rounding them all up.

Chen made a video that was broadcast on YouTube, directly appealing to Wen to take action against those who he says abused him and his family, to protect his family and to investigate corruption in Linyi city, which oversees his village. By appealing personally to [Premier Wen Jiabao], Chen was deftly avoiding the accusation, often used against dissidents in China, that he was “subverting state authority.”

Thus, Chen is a activist, supported by an “activist network,” who opposes local corruption. Later, readers learn that he is known for his “longtime advocacy for protection of the poor, the marginalized and the abused, and the application of the rule of law.”

Duly noted. The Post story then proceeds into a detailed analysis of how the case is affecting, you got it, developments in Chinese politics. The case is also raising questions for Obama administration officials, too.

But that’s it for Chen.

However, the same issue of the same newspaper featured an op-ed page column written by Bob Fu, a leader in one of the groups that is backing this generic activist. This column included the following background material:

Chen is often described as a “dissident,” but that is a misnomer. Despite years of brutal treatment for seeking to bring attention to those victimized by China’s “one-child” policy, he has never established a political party or organization. He has never advocated overthrowing the Communist Party. In the video he posted online after his escape, he says that the injustices his family experienced “hurt the image of our Party.” And the first thing he told me after escaping was that he wanted the outside the world to know that he was not going to leave China but to “fight to the end for the freedom of my family. … I want to live a normal life as a Chinese citizen with my family.” …

This blind lawyer, whose first name, “Guang Cheng,” means “light” and “integrity,” has been silenced for almost six years because the Chinese government views his assistance to the vulnerable as a threat. Chen’s desire for justice and freedom should put him firmly on the “right side” of history.

To no one’s surprise, the short bio for the author states:

Bob Fu is founder and president of the China Aid Association, a Texas-based Christian human rights organization campaigning for Chen Guangcheng’s freedom.

It is natural that Fu is working on Chen’s behalf. 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, including this subsequent piece in the Post. (The Washington Post also had a breakthrough piece on Chen and the one-child policy back in 2005. Check it out.)

But the faith angle? The religious liberty angle? Or, wait, is that the so-called “religious liberty” angle?

Still missing. Please use the comments pages to let us know if you find mainstream news reports that spot this ghost.

Correction: See this new GetReligion post on this issue.

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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.

  • Roberto

    Far Eastern Economic Review

    This article will tell you everything you need to know about why Chen and others do what they do, what they do, and how they do it. The intertubes can be a wonderful thing, if you’re inclined to ask questions in the first place. (I meant the media, not TMatt.)

  • Tim

    I’m a little confused. I understand that Bob Fu is a Christian, but is Chen Guangcheng also a Christian? I did some searching and found a few references to him being a Christian is some blogs, but no mention of any religion in the mainstream media or from Christian media like Christianity Today. The search is bogged down by a lot reports about an incident involving Chen and Christian Bale. I’d appreciate it if anyone knows the answer.

  • Kirk

    So happy to see your article. The news of Chen being a Pro-Life activist needs to get out there. I am sad to say, even Fox News isn’t telling his true story enough.

  • Richard H.

    I’m with Tim. I would like to believe that Guangcheng is a Christian pro-life activist (as tmatt asserts) but I cannot find any kind of evidence that this is true. One source please, tmatt?

    (Note I don’t consider being against *forced* abortion to amount to being “pro-life”. Even the most ardently pro-choice support the mother’s right to make the choice.)

  • Jeff

    Another ghost in this story — or a ghost within a ghost — is what the HHS Mandate might have to do with this. It would be good for reporters to ask the administration whether its effort to push us toward something more like the Chinese model of Church-State relations, where the State predominates over and subordinates the Church, has something to do with its lack of support for Chen Guangcheng. Are they worried about the “optics,” as they too push a very hard pro-abortionist line, on behalf of an abortionist group, Planned Parenthood, with roots in a eugenicism not unlike the Chinese government’s own?

  • tmatt


    Working on your request and the information is mixed. I will offer a correction momentarily that more accurately states what is emerging: The key is that he is an activist backed by Christians and, as Roberto notes above in comment No. 1, and is a leader in a moment that is largely Christian and has pro-Christian goals.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’m glad that it was mentioned here about how the media seems to be ignoring the pro-life aspect of Cheng’s activism. When this overall story started to get a little traction, I noticed that one media outlet described him as an anti-abortion activist. But then, that part of the story suddenly disappeared or was very much buried. …

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    RICHARD H- I think you are wrong on stating that even the most pro-choice advocates are not in favor of the forced abortions in China. Rare is the so-called pro-choice organization that has condemned loudly and totally the forced abortions in China. In most people’s books silence is taken as approval. Yes a few pro-choice groups are on record against the Chinese coercion policy, but in a low key protect your butt way, sometimes only at pressure from others.

  • Jeff

    Richard H needs to acquaint himself with the history of pro-abortionism and especially the history of Planned Parenthood, its flagship American branch.

    If the MSM did its job in covering pro-abortionism and Planned Parenthood, that history lesson wouldn’t be required.

  • Jeff

    This excellent BBC documentary supplies a broader historical frame:

  • A Catholic priest

    Let’s not forget that Joe Biden recently said he would not “second-guess” China’s one-child-limit policy, and that the Clinton administration denied asylum to a pregnant Chinese woman, who was deported and subjected to a forced abortion.