Who Is Chen Guangcheng?

After 19 months of house arrest in his rural village, Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng is believed to be under U.S. diplomatic protection in Beijing. According to supporters, the blind activist escaped last week under the cover of night and made his way 300 miles to China's capital city. Robert Siegel speaks with Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, about the issues that have driven Guangcheng's activism.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

To learn more about Chen Guangcheng and the issues he's been advocating, we turn now to Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch. She oversees the organization's work on China. Thank you for joining us today.

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: It's a pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: I understand that Mr. Chen had been an activist on other issues before he became involved with working on behalf of people who'd faced forced abortions or sterilizations. How did he become interested in the abortion and sterilization issue?

RICHARDSON: Well, between the mid-'90s and about 2005, Chen had effectively become a legal aid activist for people with disabilities and for farmers' rights. But in his town of Linyi in Shandong province, he started to hear reports about use of extreme violence in the imposition of family planning and population control practices. And, as a result, he decided in 2005 to start investigating those cases and uncovered credible evidence and tried to put together a legal case that was subsequently rejected. And that was really his first well-known running afoul with the authorities.

SIEGEL: But by that time, as I understand it, Chinese law had banned forced abortion, or forced sterilization. So why did the authorities take so angrily to his work, in effect trying to get the law obeyed in practice?

RICHARDSON: Well, Chinese law on paper, in many respects, is quite good. It is rarely hard(ph) as it ought to be. And I think his particular challenge - which he took to national planning authorities, as well - I think represented a degree of activism and a kind of popularity that was genuinely threatening to local authorities who decided to try to silence him by confining him and his family members to house arrest.

SIEGEL: After he actually had served a prison term, was convicted of an offense.

RICHARDSON: He was actually put on under house arrest prior to being convicted, and then after being released in September of 2010.

SIEGEL: But you say it's his success that brought down the authorities so heavily on him. Was it also his connections to outside NGOs, to human rights groups?

RICHARDSON: It's certainly always problematic, I think, for individuals when they're seen as somehow feeding information outside the country. But I think one dimension of this story is also that he's become something of a folk hero inside China. And over the last year or so, hundreds of people tried to visit him at home, and I think the authorities were getting very nervous that his profile was growing domestically.

SIEGEL: And it was growing thanks to the Web and social media?

RICHARDSON: Absolutely. More people became aware of the kind of work that he did, and even if they weren't especially concerned about forced abortions, I think he's come to be seen as somebody who's trying to press the authorities to uphold the law and investigate abuses.

SIEGEL: Michele Kelemen, in her story, mentioned the harsh treatment of Mr. Chen under house arrest, in which he said 90 to 100 people were guarding his house, and visitors would be - we know that visitors were kept from getting close to him. Members of his family, he said, were beaten, their bones broken. Again, all of this to punish him for becoming a hero to other Chinese? What do you think?

RICHARDSON: Absolutely. I mean, this is a man who's been subject - along with his family members - to torture, to malnutrition, to denial of medical attention. The local authorities weren't going to let his young daughter go to school. You know, I think this is - this case is potent partly because it shows just what kind of brutality local authorities will resort to and central government authorities won't punish.

SIEGEL: Well, I want to ask you about that. I mean, I heard from Chinese activists, this somehow confidence that authorities in the central government, if only they knew how badly their laws were being misapplied by local authorities, that would set the problem right. There seems to be some confidence in the central government that it's better than the local authorities.

RICHARDSON: Well, I don't think it's that people like Chen Guangcheng are naive. I think it's about calling the bluff of the central government's officials to intervene, that there is no higher authority to appeal to. And, indeed, in the video that Chen released after he got to Beijing, this is precisely what he does, is to say, Premier Wen Jiabao, you need to investigate this.

SIEGEL: Sophie Richardson, thank you very much for talking with us.

RICHARDSON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Sophie Richardson is the China director for Human Rights Watch.

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