Linyi (China), Aug. 27: A crowd of dishevelled 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 sterilised. Women pregnant with a third child were forced to have abortions. And if people tried to hide, the officials jailed their relatives and neighbours, 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 travelling 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 sterilisation 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.
“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 sterilisation, though never openly endorsed by the government, have been an element of China’s family planning practices since at least 1980.
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. In Linyi, residents said local officials ordered couples to come in for sterilisation even if they had been given permission to have a second child.
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 neighbour had earned a reputation as someone who understood the law ' and would stand up to the government.
In 1996, he had travelled 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 neighbours 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 sterilisation 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.”