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Chinese Village Fights for Release of Activist

ROBERT SIEGEL: In a village in Eastern China, dozens of armed men have kept a blind peasant organizer under house arrest, without charge, for the past six months. The man uncovered a local government program of forced abortions and sterilizations. China's family planning policy limits most families to one child, but such coercive actions are illegal. Over the weekend a villager sided with the blind man and battled police. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has this story. And a word of warning, it contains some potentially disturbing material.

ANTHONY KUHN: In the village of Dongshigu in East China's Shandong province, a man answering the village government phone acknowledged the clash on Sunday. He confirmed villagers' accounts that angry residents had smashed three government cars and rolled them into a ditch. He also confirmed that one resident injured in the clash was hospitalized and that Chen Guangcheng, the 34-year-old blind activist remains under house arrest. When asked his name he hung up. Villagers say that the violence started when thugs and police beat and arrested one of Chen's relatives.

Chen grew up in Dongshigu village in a poor farming family. He went blind after suffering a fever as an infant. His formal education began at age 18 at a local school for the blind. He later taught himself law and made a name for himself by suing the government to protect the rights of disabled people. In 2003 he visited America at the invitation of the U.S. government. Last year, he says, peasants began calling him, asking him if forced abortions and sterilizations were legal.

CHEN GUANGCHENG: (Through Translator) All these years we've been trying to build the rule of law, yet we're now in a situation where local officials are openly breaking the law and trampling on people's human rights. It's unacceptable so we decided to investigate.

KUHN: Armed with a cheap voice recorder, Chen and some lawyer friends began visiting local farmers. Most were women who had had more than one child. That's a common situation in poor rural areas where farmers want more hands to till the fields and care for the elderly.

HU BINGMEI: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: This woman, Hu Bingmei, told Chen that last year the head of the county Family Planning Bureau threatened her, saying that she would be sterilized forcibly if she didn't consent. Hu eventually relented. She said doctors botched the sterilization procedure twice, causing serious internal bleeding.

MAY: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: I'm a human being, she protested, not a quilted jacket whose stuffing you can just rearrange any way you like. Another farmer named Chen Xirong said officials beat him with truncheons until he revealed the location of his pregnant daughter-in-law. They found her and took her to a family planning office, he told Chen, where they aborted her baby by injection.

CHEN XIRONG: (Through Translator) They stuck the needle in her belly and injected medicine into the baby's brain. The baby came out dead a few hours later. The baby was due to be born in just two days.

KUHN: Chen reckons that at the height of the campaign local officials were carrying out hundreds of forced abortions and sterilizations each day in the counties around him. He took his findings to central government departments and foreign reporters in Beijing. He advised the peasants about their rights under Chinese law and helped them to sue the local government.

Chen and his supporters say police from his village abducted him from Beijing, beat him, and confined his to his farmhouse. They beat lawyers who tried to visit him. They cut or jammed his phone lines and confiscated his computer. They threatened to kill him and warned his friends and neighbors not to help him. Jerome Cohen, a teacher of Chinese law at New York University Law School, has helped Chen.

JEROME COHEN: It's quite clear, local officials do not like ordinary citizens learning about law. That's been documented. They try to keep legal knowledge from these people because Chinese people now want to exercise their rights. Rights consciousness has come to rural China.

KUHN: When that consciousness is frustrated, Cohen adds, riots break out. Chinese police statistics counted 87,000 civil disturbances nationwide in 2005, up more than 6 percent year on year.

Over dinner at a neighbor's house, Chen's wife, Yuan Weijing, says that they're buoyed by the rising tide of support from their fellow villagers.

YUAN WEIJING: (Through Translator) At first the government told our neighbors not to help us because we were counterrevolutionaries and traitors. People didn't dare to speak to us. Now villagers understand that if my husband had really done something wrong, they wouldn't be keeping him here.

KUHN: But the Chens are not optimistic that the central government will rescue them. The one child policy remains a pillar of the country's economic development, they point out. And China's leaders can't be happy with these embarrassing revelations. But they preside over a system in which local officials can only be promoted if they don't exceed their family planning quotas. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.