In This Episode
Guangcheng fights his biggest case in China – exposing the brutality of the One Child Policy. This, and a series of public and legal victories in the early 2000s, makes him into an icon in the US and an enemy of the state in China, an unlikely place for a blind man who grew up in a poor village. So how did it all begin? We talk to Guangcheng himself to find out.
Colin Jones: The night after the Bradley Prizes, I followed Guangcheng to another event held at Catholic University. This one was for Guangcheng himself to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his arrival in the US. Bradley had been big budget national politics, and in that setting, Guangcheng addressed himself to a crowd that only knew him from television and the brief introductory clip that played before his speech. But at Catholic which has been Guangcheng’s institutional home for nearly a decade. Almost everyone in the room was a friend, a confidante or supporter of Guangcheng and his family. Many speeches were given that night. Guangcheng’s wife, Yuan Weijing spoke. So did the venerated democracy activist Wei Jingsheng, as well as Guangcheng’s immigration lawyer, which just led him through the process of becoming a US citizen. And then there were people like Reggie Littlejohn.
[clip of Reggie Littlejohn]: And so this was I don’t know, 12 years ago or something.
Colin Jones: Reggie is the president and founder of an organization called Women’s Rights Without Frontiers. She has dedicated her career to ending forced abortions in China.
[clip of Reggie Littlejohn]: I was doing what Chen Guangcheng was doing on American soil or outside of China, exposing the atrocities of the forced abortions, of forced sterilizations and all that.
Colin Jones: Guangcheng was standing next to Reggie while she spoke. You’ll hear him sniffle a bit in the tape.
[clip of Reggie Littlejohn]: And when I found out that he had been jailed and tortured, it’s like, I don’t know what happened. It just broke my heart. And I spent about three years doing almost nothing but advocating for his case all over the world.
Colin Jones: If you want to understand how Guangcheng ended up with the American life, he’s got a lot of that. Starts with the affinity that people like Reggie feel for him.
[clip of Reggie Littlejohn]: Usually cases like this, I mean, the person ends up dying. It’s not ending up like this where I’m standing next to him and congratulating him on having been here for ten years, and then him having spoken at the Republican National Convention and then getting the Bradley Prize last night. This is almost surreal. It’s almost too good to be true. And we all love you, Chen Guangcheng. [applause]
Colin Jones: Guangcheng risked his life to expose the brutality of forced abortions and sterilizations in his community that made him an icon for the pro-life movement in the US and an enemy of the state in China. But he never set out to become either of these things. In this episode, we’re going to tell you how it all began. In order to do that, we needed to talk to Guangcheng himself. I’m Colin Jones.
Yangyang Cheng: And I’m Yangyang Cheng. And this is episode two of Dissident at the Doorstep. [music plays]
Colin Jones: Yangyang and I ended up back at Catholic University a few months later. It was early summer. The semester had just wrapped up and the campus was almost empty. Ali was back in New York. Eight and a half months pregnant. The university had booked a room for us, and on our way there, the only people we saw were a couple members of the custodial staff and a group of young priests and a nun waiting outside a chapel annex.
Yangyang Cheng: This was my first time meeting Guangcheng. I could not quite picture what he would be like in person. Every video of him I’d seen. He appeared larger than life. So when he walked into the room, my first impulse was to look up. Instead, I found myself towering over him. This is not unusual. I’m six feet tall. I tower over most people, including Colin. Still. The first sight of Guangcheng was not quite what I had expected. Instead of a fierce firebrand or arrogant celebrity, the man before me was gentle and polite. There was something familiar about him. Like a neighborhood uncle or the father of a schoolmate. [ambient chatter]
Maria Byrne: I’m Maria.
Chen Guangcheng: Maria—
Maria Byrne: We met briefly at the Bradley event. Nice to see you.
Chen Guangcheng: Nice to see you again. Yeah. Thank you—
Maria Byrne: So I’m going to put you sitting beside me. Is that okay?
Chen Guangcheng: Oh, yeah. Of course.
Maria Byrne: Okay, so we’ll come. I’ll do you want to take my elbow?
Yangyang Cheng: Guangcheng speaks English fairly well, as he does here with our producer, Maria. But Chinese is the language he’s the most comfortable in, where he is the most expressive. So we decided to do most of our interviews with him in Chinese. [Guangcheng speaking Chinese] To convey his words in English. We worked with a voice over actor of similar age to Guangcheng and also a native Mandarin speaker.
Richard Yeh: How should I put it? Honestly, it’s a long story. One of the things that makes me very different from the other kids I grew up with is that I have a very good memory. Whatever I experienced at the time, I still remember perfectly.
Colin Jones: When I spoke with other people about what made Guangcheng an activist. One of the things I heard again and again was that his willpower is almost superhuman. I sort of assume that Guangcheng was just born this way. But as he was telling us about his early life, it occurred to me that there is almost never been a moment in which he hasn’t had to struggle to be taken seriously. When Guangcheng was born in 1971, he had the ability to see. But while he was still an infant, he came down with a terrible fever. His family, who were poor, didn’t have the money to get him seen at a hospital. The fever eventually passed on its own, but it took his sight with it.
Richard Yeh: We all have great hopes for our children. This is the case for almost everyone. But in my case. Well, let me put it mildly. It was a kind of a disappointment. As if there was no hope for me.
Colin Jones: Guangcheng said that as far back as he can remember, his blindness was the first thing people noticed about him. That meant some people, even people in his own family, treated him as if he didn’t matter.
Richard Yeh: I have an aunt. She did not go to school much herself and many times right in front of my family very directly, she would say, oh, you are the useless one here. It’s such a blatant, harsh attack when people think you are useless and do not have a future, they can say really hurtful things without, you know, any reservation. But for me, since I was a child, I always thought, how would you know how I might turn out?
Colin Jones: So much of his early life was spent proving people like his aunt wrong. He told us about the adults in his village, a place called Dongshigu. When they told him not to swim in the local river, he just swam out deeper. He wasn’t allowed to attend the local school, which didn’t have the resources to teach blind children. So Guangcheng turned himself into a ferocious autodidact, taking in lessons from everything and everyone around him. He was obsessed with machinery. He would spend hours taking apart and putting back together bicycles and anything else he could get his hands on. I’d heard that at one point he built himself a makeshift gun that fired sand and rocks. Decades later, he could still recount in meticulous detail how it all worked.
Richard Yeh: We used three matches or five matches, as the igniter in the back of the metal frame, and the rubber band as a spring with the tension of the rubber band, the ground tip of the wire would straight the match heads and explode.
Colin Jones: The gun freaked out a lot of people in the village. You can imagine a blind child barred from school, strutting around with his homemade contraption of pipes and gunpowder.
Yangyang Cheng: Throughout our interview with Guangcheng, I noticed that he tended to see his own actions taking place on a grand scale. This was evident in the story he told about the first time he attended school, which for Guangcheng wasn’t until just before he turned 18. That year enrolled in a new school for the blind in a nearby county of Linyi. The teachers were nice, and he learned Braille, which meant he could finally read on his own without relying on sighted people. But the living conditions were poor, even by the standards of the time. There was often no running water, and bathing was a luxury for the students. He complained about it to the school administrators. Guangcheng thought his grievances were justified, but instead of fixing the problems, the school retaliated against him for pointing them out.
Richard Yeh: No matter what the issue was, once you stood up and protested, it became complicated. It was no longer about having access to hot water or getting undercooked buns at the canteen. It was about you speaking up against the school and no longer being a good, obedient student.
Yangyang Cheng: Then he summed up the story with a line of poetry by Mao Zedong.
Richard Yeh: As the saying goes, the just cause of the world is constantly in flux. Even oceans can recede and become fertile land for telling the truth and doing the right thing. The price you pay is indeed very heavy.
Yangyang Cheng: It might seem odd that a freedom fighter would borrow words from a tyrant, but Guangcheng, is only a few years younger than my parents. For Chinese people of his generation. Mao’s words are part of the language they grew up with and absorbed into their own vocabulary. For Guangcheneg, a dispute with school administrators was part of a cosmic struggle for justice. Mao’s words were a perfect fit.
Colin Jones: Listening to Guangcheng tell his story, it becomes clear that his life has been a series of clashes with this authority or that authority. But he really wasn’t out there picking fights. All these conflicts come down to his insistence that he be treated fairly and with respect. And that’s also how he started on his path as a legal activist in the 1980s and 90s. China was passing reams of new laws as it built up its modern legal system in 1990. One of those new laws was on the protection of disabled persons. Guangcheng’s father read about it in the newspaper. Among other things, this law exempted people who are unable to work because of their disability from paying annual taxes. This included blind people.
Yangyang Cheng: This was a big deal for Guangcheng’s family. They already had a hard time paying for his school expenses. But on top of that, the 90s were a time when the tax burdens for China’s rural population were being pushed to the limit as local officials squeezed farmers to raise revenue. China’s new disability law should have saved Guan Chen’s family a lot of money. But the following year, village officials still came by and demanded that they pay the taxes for him. Guangcheng went to the village offices to argue that this was a mistake.
Richard Yeh: I started taking copies of the law to them. First I went to the village party secretary. He took a glance at the statute and did not even bother reading it. He said, we cannot solve this problem. We are still waiting on instructions from higher up. So I went to the township government and they said, the law has just been issued. We are still getting ready so we have nothing for you.
Yangyang Cheng: Guangcheng had thought that he had an easy case because the law was on his side. But he learned that day how China’s legal system actually worked. When there are conflicting incentives, protecting individual rights often gives way to preserving financial interests. In these cases, laws are little more than words on paper. Local officials feel little need to enforce them. I can picture my family in a similar situation. They would have swallowed a bitterness and accepted it as fate. But Guangcheng was not one to acquiesce.
Colin Jones: After being turned away by village officials, Guangcheng spent the next six years trying to force them to follow the law. The way that worked in China was through a formal petitioning system. In theory, any citizen can directly petition the government to complain about being mistreated and to ask the government to do something about it. In practice, it’s mostly a waste of time. Guangcheng worked his way up the hierarchy of regional offices, eventually ending up in Beijing to petition the central government. He waited for hours. Finally, he was given a piece of paper addressed to his village officials that simply read, we hope you take care of this issue. The paper didn’t even have an official seal on it. It was completely meaningless.
Richard Yeh: By then, I had lost all hope in the CCP. Think about it. The people went through all this trouble. Petition all the way from the local township to Beijing, and then just printed out a random piece of paper. And it did not even have the official seal on it. And you told them to take it back to the provincial government to solve the problem. And the provincial government said to go back to the township, and the township said to go back to the village. Isn’t this just playing tricks on people? So there is no point in having any hope for this evil regime.
Colin Jones: For Guangcheng, this was a breaking point. Up until now, he had been hoping the government would recognize the justice of his cause. But the government barely recognized his existence. That was about to change. That’s after the break.
Yangyang Cheng: There is a saying in Chinese, tou ting di tai, listening to the enemy’s radio station in secret. [music plays] In the late 1980s, Guangcheng was a regular listener of a show called China Labor Bulletin. It aired on Radio Free Asia, a channel funded by the US government. It was broadcast into the mainland from Hong Kong. The host was a labor activist named Han Dongfang.
Yangyang Cheng: One night Guangcheng dialed in. They became fast friends during one of their many calls. Guangcheng told Dongfang about the problem weighing on his mind the river in Dongshigu, where he swam and fished as a child, had become dangerously polluted.
Richard Yeh: It was like the color of soy sauce, and the smell was very strong, like the smell of sodium hydroxide. If you used that liquid to wash your hands and feet, you would get rashes. And if you used it to irrigate the fields, the crops would die. The situation was very bad. Later. This also led to some really weird illnesses in the village. The villagers were able to pay to get it checked out. Those who cannot afford to see a doctor would just end up in the ground.
Yangyang Cheng: Dongfang had a suggestion, reach out to the international community for help. He even gave Guangcheng a place to start connecting him to a young British diplomat named Caroline Wilson. Caroline is now the UK’s ambassador to China, and her office declined our request for an interview. Caroline helped Guangcheng secure a grant from the British government to dig a deeper well.
Colin Jones: It might seem strange that the British government would partner with someone like Guangcheng on such a specific and local project. But in the early 2000s, Western governments poured development money into China with the hope that it would become more like them. Guangcheng’s well was kind of typical at that moment. This was the beginning of Guangcheng’s relationship with a group of diplomats, activists and NGOs that in China is simply called the West. Caroline planned to visit Dongshigu for the opening of the new well, and she invited a journalist to accompany her at the time. Zhang Lijia was freelancing for media outlets like The Guardian and Newsweek. Her first time meeting Guangcheng was a distinct experience.
Zhang Lijia: When I met him, I remember very clearly he held my hand and he kind of touched it feeled it, and not in an unpleasant way, but I was just quite amused. That seemed to be that was his way to get a sense of who he he was meeting.
Colin Jones: Guangcheng and his brother picked up Lijia and Caroline at the train station that evening. They were all guests at a banquet held by village officials to celebrate the opening of the well.
Zhang Lijia: And there were quite a few officials and everybody, apart from Guangcheng and his brother, everybody smoked like a chimney. And it was the large table and the food just kept coming, you know, jellyfish and pickled cucumber. And then the, the local specialty was fried silkworms and also, deep fried scorpions and things like that.
Yangyang Cheng: A dinner like this serves multiple functions. The officials convey their gratitude and prove their hospitality to guests from afar. But an ostensibly friendly banquets is also a chance for the hosts to show off their prosperity and, more importantly, to signal. Who is the boss. By getting external help. Guangcheng had done the local officials a favor. But the favor carried a hint of accusation. It implied that the officials were incapable of fixing the water pollution themselves. The burden sharpens when the benefactor is a Western government represented by a white woman. Towards the end of their meal, the officials took the opportunity to reassert their authority. They brought up the question of where Lijia and Caroline should spend the night. The officials insisted that the guests stay at the state run hotel, a well known tactic for the authorities to keep an eye on potential troublemakers. But Lijia insisted that as a private Chinese citizen, she should be allowed to stay wherever she wished, in this case with her friend Guangcheng, the two sides would not budge.
Zhang Lijia: He was very nervous and maybe angry, or he probably tried meanwhile tried to keep calm. His lips trembled. I remember this detail very clearly.
Yangyang Cheng: Letting Lijia decide where to sleep might seem like a small issue in the grand scheme of things. Even though the pushback from local officials might have made Guangcheng nervous, he did not relent. In the end, the officials did, and Lijia stayed at Guangcheng’s house. The next day, Lijia and Caroline attended a ceremony in the village. People talked about how much they had suffered from the pollution and how excited they were to have clean water again. At the center of all this was Guangcheng.
Zhang Lijia: So that the villagers are all, very impressed. They like Guangcheng. You know Guangcheng was one of the boys from the village, and they said. And how wonderful he was, how clever he he was. And, people were just so impressed how knowledgeable he was, how he knew, about the law.
Yangyang Cheng: The trip to Dongshigu left a lasting impression on Lijia. She wrote an article about it in the British newspaper The Independent, followed by a cover story in Newsweek about Guangcheng’s continued legal activism. It was this article that raised Guangcheng’s profile beyond Chinese borders and brought him to the attention of some powerful groups. The Newsweek article portrayed a handful of activists from the countryside. Despite having little formal education, they had learned enough about the law to help their neighbors with disputes and file suits in the Chinese court system. To describe them, Lijia used the phrase barefoot lawyers. This is a reference to the barefoot doctors of the Mao era, when hundreds of thousands of rural residents received basic medical training and were charged with providing health care in their villages. The party state celebrated them as an example of the ingenuity and self-sufficiency of the Chinese peasantry. Now, the term barefoot lawyer invoked this collective past, but it also suggested something new. As China formalized its legal system, ordinary citizens were gaining a new consciousness of the law and their rights. The piece in Newsweek featured a number of people, but Guangcheng was the only one on the cover. He was the barefoot lawyer.
Colin Jones: I’m going to read something. Mr. Chen Guangcheng and his wife and Yuan Weijing truly represent the younger generation of the Chinese citizens, who have a different working style from the older generations. They have the critical thinking ability and are vocal and assertive. They also have a strong sense of entitlement of their rights. These are the opening lines of a State Department memo about Guangcheng’s first visit to the US in 2003. That year, he was invited to participate in a program intended to deepen ties between US experts and foreign individuals the US government identified as emerging leaders. He made the trip with his wife Yuan Weijing. They had married just a few months earlier after meeting through another call-in radio show and falling in love. Guangcheng and Weijing met with disability rights advocates and an official from the National Federation of the blind. But the most important meeting of the visit was with a China law expert named Jerry Cohen.
Jerry Cohen: The State Department, whenever they had visitors from China, would call me and ask would I meet with them. And they called one day and said, could I meet this guy? He’s a barefoot lawyer. I didn’t know anything about him. And he shows up in my office at the council with his wife. Well, I was very impressed.
Colin Jones: It is hard to overstate how important Jerry has been to the study of Chinese law in the US or really to China studies in general. He was one of the earliest Americans to visit China after Richard Nixon rekindled diplomatic relations. And he’s taught multiple generations of leaders here and abroad, including one of the former presidents of Taiwan. The way Guangcheng remembers it, Jerry initially did not want to meet with him.
Richard Yeh: At the time, I was a nobody. He said he didn’t have the time for me. But the State Department insisted that he should meet with me and that I wouldn’t let him down. So he’s scheduled a meeting. The more we talked, the more interested he became, and we went way past the scheduled time. I told him stories from China. For someone like him who is familiar with Chinese and American law and Chinese society. What I told him were things he had never heard of, because whenever he visited China, he’d be surrounded by university folks. It was very difficult for him to know about the social structure, about what life is like in the villages for the vast majority of Chinese people. So he was very interested in what I had to say. After that, we kept in touch. Later, when he came to Beijing, we also met in person. The more we talked, the deeper our bond became. Even though we’re from different generations.
Colin Jones: I always imagine that for Jerry, this encounter must have felt revelatory, because by then he had spent almost 40 years studying Chinese law, and he really thought that the rule of law could make China more democratic. Then one day, in walks Guangcheng, a blind man from the countryside the State Department had brought over. And despite coming from a completely different social world than the one Jerry knew, Guangcheng seemed to share Jerry’s vision.
Jerry Cohen: And he was picked because he looked like he was then a favorite of the Chinese government in a way because he’d had favorable publicity. Newsweek International had eight pages of photographs of Chen, people’s lawyer. You know, never studied law, but the rural area needs help. And here China has spawned this barefoot lawyer analog to the barefoot doctors Chairman Mao had made famous. And I thought this guy could well be a leader of China someday.
Colin Jones: When Jerry says that, he doesn’t just mean any leader, he means the leader.
Yangyang Cheng: A major reason that professor Jerry Cohen and the U.S. government were both so enthusiastic about Guangcheng was because the Chinese government was during this time as well. Power is fragmented within the Chinese bureaucracy. The central government has been trying for years to increase its oversight of local authorities in a new era of legal reform. One way to potentially achieve that was to pass lots of new laws. Yet at the local level, the new laws were scantily enforced and often ignored. And that is where Guangcheng came in. By demanding that his municipality follow the laws as they were written. He was adding pressure from below for local officials to follow the commands from above cast in a certain light. He was proof that the Chinese people and Beijing were on the same page.
Richard Yeh: Actually, because of all the positive news coverage of our work on China Central Television, Beijing TV, etc., the Linyi municipal government had no choice but to put me under a positive light. They celebrated me as one of the city’s top ten news figures.
Yangyang Cheng: But this alignment was narrow and fragile. Soon, Guangcheng would use the law in a way that would threaten this delicate balance. No amount of fame could protect him. That’s coming up after this break.
Phil Pan: I met Guangcheng through Jerry Cohen.
Yangyang Cheng: This is Phil Pan. Phil is now the international editor for The New York Times. In the 2000s, he was a China correspondent for the Washington Post, based in Beijing.
Phil Pan: Jerry had been a source, an expert, that I spoke to quite often, and at some point he called me and wanted to introduce me to this fellow. And he told me that, you know, I’ve got this guy, I met this guy, he’s a barefoot lawyer. I think that’s the way, way Jerry referred to him. And he’s got this fascinating case that he’s working on in Shandong.
Yangyang Cheng: Jerry was visiting Beijing. Phil agreed to meet him and Guangcheng at the teahouse near the center of the city.
Phil Pan: It was in the afternoon. It wasn’t a fancy place. I think we picked it because we could get a room, a private room. It was well lit, but it was me and Jerry and Guangcheng was sitting there, he had on his dark sunglasses. I think he was wearing an ill fitting blazer. You could tell, you know that he was from the countryside. But he’s a handsome guy. Someone you would notice in a room, I’d say.
Yangyang Cheng: Jerry arranged this meeting because Phil had been reporting on China’s one child policy, one of the most extreme and consequential policies in the history of the People’s Republic of China. It was also the subject of Guangcheng latest case, the one that would define his career. Written into the Chinese Constitution in 1982. The one child policy placed severe restrictions on reproduction other than ethnic minorities and some rural households, most Chinese families were prohibited from having more than one child. I was born in 1989. Like many daughters conceived under the one child policy. I’ve often wondered if my existence denied my family the son they would have preferred. The punishments for having more children were harsh. Some households could afford the hefty fines or bribe their way out. Others lost their jobs, had to move across provinces or give their kids away. And then there were the nightmare scenarios of forced late term abortions, sterilizations. And infanticide. The government officially ended the one child policy in 2016, but already by the early 2000s, officials at the Family Planning Commission were eager to convince fellow and other Western journalists that the situation was improving.
Phil Pan: They had a story they wanted to tell. Basically, China had come under a lot of international pressure for the abuses of the one child policy. Forced abortion. Forced sterilization was now illegal, and they wanted the world to know that China had moved beyond that.
Yangyang Cheng: That was partially true. His reporting Phil found that enforcement of the one child policy had practically ended in some parts of the country. In other regions. However, it was clear that the old brutal methods were still in use.
Colin Jones: That’s what Guangcheng said was happening in Shandong. He told Phil that authorities in his local county, Linyi, were raiding homes of families who had violated the policy. They were forcing pregnant women to have abortions or forcing one of the parents to be sterilized. Usually the mother.
Phil Pan: If the parent refused, they were sometimes being dragged into cars and taken to the facilities to have these operations. And then women who are pregnant or parents who are they were demanding to be sterilized, who fled to try to avoid these operations. The authorities were beginning to arrest and detain their relatives and just hold them hostage, essentially, until they came back and submitted to the procedures.
Colin Jones: That latter part about kidnaping relatives. It’s what made Guangcheng’s story newsworthy. It was just so clearly illegal.
Phil Pan: Potentially you could make a case that you’re enforcing national policy by encouraging sterilization, by encouraging abortions if you’re in violation of the planned birth guidelines. But there’s really nothing in the law that allows you to just take relatives hostage and hold you, you know, in detention facilities until people submitted to these procedures. Guangcheng told Phil that he had started assembling evidence to file a class action suit against Linyi County, and so Phil agreed to head down to Shandong and see for himself what had been happening. He made plans to meet Guangcheng there.
Phil Pan: We probably arrived like early one morning. There was already a crowd of people waiting for him and for us, and like, we were ushered into this rural home and, you know, someone pulled up stools for us to sit on. Guangcheng took out a digital recorder and just started interviewing these residents. So this wasn’t like, set up for us. Like he was actually doing his research, like for his legal case, you know, and I was just following along and one after another, these women, mostly women, came up to him and told him about what had happened. They had been dragged by the authorities and they were forced to be sterilized. One woman I remember the surgery had not gone well and she was basically crippled. She couldn’t get around easily. A woman told about an abortion. The men told about being held, you know, hostage. It was just sort of like one after another, like an awful story. And Guangcheng, like, listened to it all and recorded it all on a digital recorder. And then after we were done there, we got in the car and we went to another village, and the same thing happened. And I don’t remember how many villages we went to that day, but there were a lot and the story was consistent. It was clearly like a regional crackdown ordered from high that they had to do something about their birthrate.
Colin Jones: Phil made his own recordings and he managed to find them for us on an old hard drive. All these years later. [recording plays] In these recordings, you can hear him speak with men and women who are desperate to share their stories. Guangcheng sometimes chimes in to help guide their testimonies. Since most are speaking a regional dialect or have very thick accents. Phil brought along Jin Ling, a researcher and translator who worked for the Washington Post and had grown up in China. [recording plays]
Jin Ling: And then I had a conversation with the family planning office guys. I said, it is you who give us the permission to have the second baby.
Colin Jones: This is pretty typical of many of the stories Phil recorded, and it starts with a villager explaining previous conversations with family planning officials, and then things turned violent.
Jin Ling: Almost seven people came too because they were, standing on that yard. And we have so many people the yard is very small, just like, you know, the distance people are very close and they came to me, they try to grab me. Someone seized my hand, someone seized my neck. And then, we we had a fight.
Colin Jones: Someone seized my neck, and then we had a fight. She says. [music plays] Through his reporting, Phil later learned that the Linyi party chief, a man named Li Qun, had set a cap on local population growth of 6% or less. Li had also told officials that the peasants were too uneducated to be swayed by the law alone, and so they should ensure compliance by any means necessary.
Yangyang Cheng: Foreign journalists were not the only people Guangcheng reached out to about his case in Linyi. Resourceful as ever, he was also recruiting domestic allies. One of them was a lawyer named Teng Biao.
Teng Biao: We met and then he told us what’s happening in Linyi Shandong Province that so many villagers and people were arbitrarily detained and tortured.
Yangyang Cheng: Like Guangcheng, Teng Biao was also a legal activist, although one with a very different pedigree. He holds a PhD in law from Peking University, the Harvard of China. Since the early 2000s. In addition to his day job as a law professor, he has been running a legal clinic in Beijing that took on a number of sensitive cases involving the government.
Teng Biao: We did things about that free speech, religious freedom, the forced eviction, torture.
Yangyang Cheng: As a middle school student in China, I read about Teng Biao’s work in the papers. Working on this podcast brought back these memories from 20 years ago, when my teenage self was first intrigued by the lost potential to advance justice. Then, as we were close to wrapping up the series, a story exploded in the overseas Chinese community. A journalist from Taiwan has accused Teng Biao of sexual assault in a public statement Teng Biao describes the events differently, but he admits to wrongdoing. We’ll talk more about that later in the series. Because of his work at the legal clinic in Beijing. Teng Biao was no novice to descriptions of state abuse. But what Guangcheng told him about Linyi still stood out.
Teng Biao: So I was kind of shocked by what I heard, the details of the torture and the brutality committed by local officials and their family planning officers. And then I wrote down all the details.
Yangyang Cheng: As he did with Phil Pan, Guangcheng invited Teng Biao and another activist from his legal clinic, to Linyi, to hear for themselves what had been taking place. During that trip, Guangcheng says they noticed there were people keeping an eye on them.
Richard Yeh: One day I was with Teng Biao and Yu Shan, and we were traveling from one place to another doing interviews. Before we got off the train, we saw the town mayor, the police and their car already waiting for us.
Yangyang Cheng: On the way out of the train station, Teng Biao saw a car following them.
Teng Biao: Maybe the secret police or some people from the Public Security Bureau.
Yangyang Cheng: Teng Biao and Guangcheng’s driver skipped off the road and into a field.
Teng Biao: I remember it was a cornfield, something like that. And a small trail and someone’s home and Chen Guangcheng was so familiar with the geography that he told the taxi driver how to, I don’t know how to—
Colin Jones: Escape them?
Teng Biao: Yeah yeah yeah, yeah. Escape the followers.
Alison Klayman: By driving through a cornfield?
Jerry Cohen: Yeah, yeah. The small trail in the cornfield. And—
Colin Jones: Were you scared?
Teng Biao: Not very scared. What? I was scared was not like being caught by those people. But the possibility of our interviews and investigation being interrupted.
Yangyang Cheng: This time Guangcheng and Teng Biao got away. Teng Biao’s plan was to write up a report about all the evidence Guangcheng town had collected in Linyi. As he made arrangements to return to Beijing, he wanted to make sure Guangcheng understood the risks of going public.
Teng Biao: Before I left Linyi, I asked Chen Guangcheng I wanted to write something. But it might put you at risk so you can think about it. If my report would put you in danger I may change my idea and Chen Guangcheng replied immediately, if you don’t write something, why do I invite you?
Yangyang Cheng: On paper, the Chinese Constitution guarantees the freedom of expression and political rights of citizens. Guangcheng then, wasn’t breaking any laws by putting together a case against Linyi authorities, but that he might have a case and a class action, no less, implied that brutal coercion was inherent to the one child policy seen in this light, it was a direct affront to the Chinese state. Knowing this, Phil also wanted to talk with Guangcheng about the risks of pressing ahead.
Phil Pan: He wanted to go ahead. He was an optimist. He thought he hadn’t done anything illegal. He was basically trying to help his neighbors. But he also understood that because it was the one child policy and because it was foreign media, he could be targeted. But he thought the risks weren’t minimal, but that the risks weren’t worth taking the try to draw attention to the case.
Yangyang Cheng: Both Teng Biao and Phil Pan published their reports shortly after authorities in Linyi put Guangcheng under house arrest. It did not last long. Guangzhou managed to slip out and got himself on the train to Beijing. He was greeted at the station by one of Teng Biao’s colleagues on their way out of the station. They were chased by a group of men. Guangcheng thinks they were sent all the way from his home county after a quick run around. He and the other lawyer shook off the unfriendly tail and escaped into Beijing’s subway system.
Phil Pan: And he called me, and we met at a dinner with a whole bunch of these lawyers. It was like a celebration.
Colin Jones: Phil was concerned after hearing about Guangcheng’s many close calls with the authorities. But around the banquet table, Guangcheng and the rest of the lawyers laughed about the experience.
Phil Pan: There was no sense that they were going to back down, Guangcheng did not seem intimidated at all, and did not seem interested at all in the idea that, like, I think we’ve done enough we’ve had of all this international attention, they’re really angry. Let’s just lay low, which is what some people would do, I think. But now he wanted to press ahead, and he had this table full of other lawyers who wanted to do so as well.
Colin Jones: Phil was pretty familiar with this sentiment. Besides Guangcheng, he had followed around a number of legal activists in China, and he had seen firsthand the unshakable faith they had in their cause.
Phil Pan: I mean, it’s almost crazy to say it out loud, right? They wanted the political system to be more democratic. They wanted it to be more open and to be more responsive, and therefore more efficient in their minds, more effective. Looking back at it now, like, you know, it almost seems naive for me to have thought as a correspondent that they could succeed. It would be even nuttier for them to think that they could succeed. I think because they lived there. And they knew how difficult that would be? But I think that’s what they wanted. Yeah, they and they believed they could. They also like but that’s like part of that whole time. Everybody there was optimistic. Even the guys who were losing, even the guys were being thrown in jail. They all felt time was on their side. A few days later, I believe I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize, and it was one of these lawyers who was calling, and there was panic in his voice and he said, you’ve got to come right away. I don’t remember his exact words, but basically he was saying that people were taking Guangcheng away.
Colin Jones: Phil was across town, but he rushed over to the address the lawyer gave him. When he got there, he found a large crowd of people surrounding a car. Phil pushed in closer and asked what was going on.
Phil Pan: They said look, look in the car, and I looked in the car and in the back. In the back seat there were these two big guys, and I said to the people, you know, there’s just two guys there, and what are you talking about? And they said, no. Look closer. So I went up to the car and I like had to like basically put my hands on the window and peer in and I could see Guangcheng was on the floor of the rear seating area, and these two guys were holding him down, and I could hear him like shouting for help. And this crowd that had surrounded the car, these weren’t lawyers. These were just like passers by who had seen these thugs rough up a blind guy and throw them into a car. Basically, they thought, and they were right, that a crime was being committed. And they surrounded the car and they called the police.
Colin Jones: Guangcheng remembers being in that back seat. He even said he knew the two guys holding him down. According to him, they were township deputy secretaries from his area.
Richard Yeh: Of course, I fought back and we wrestled inside the car. They punched me viciously. They threw their fists at my head at my face, and then grabbed me by the hair and shoved me to the floor by the back seat of the car.
Colin Jones: Phil waited by the car until the police showed up.
Phil Pan: A couple like, you know, basically Beijing police patrol guys and like, well, what’s going on here? Then a guy walked up to them. You could tell he was a security guy. And there was a exchange of words. And the Beijing cops sort of nodded and told the crowd that they had to let the car go and basically clear the way for the car to drive away.
Alison Klayman: How did it feel in the moment as that car was driving away?
Colin Jones: That moment sort of hung over me. The sort of image of that car driving away and being entirely helpless to do anything about it. And it was a sinking feeling because I maybe thought, oh, maybe they’re taking him away and he’ll be fine. But I had a feeling that it wasn’t going to go that way. And that was how, like seven years of detention began for Guangcheng. I had no idea that would be the case then.
Yangyang Cheng: Dissident at the Doorstep is an original podcast from Crooked Media. Our hosts are Alison Klayman Colin Jones and me Yangyang Cheng. From Crooked Media. Our executive producers are Tommy Vietor, Sarah Geismer and Katie Long, with special thanks to Mary Knauf and Alison Falzetta. Our senior producer is Maria Byrne and Meg Cramer. Maura Walz is our story editor. Our producer is Wudan Yan. Our associate producers are Boen Wang and Sydney Rapp. Translation by Valerie C, with additional translation by me, Yangyang Cheng and Richard Yeh. Voiceovers by Richard Yeh. Our fact checker is Tamika Adams. Sound design and mixing by Hannis Brown original score by Ilan Isakov and our podcast Art is by John Lee. And special thanks this episode to Jared Knepper and Phil Pan.