South China Morning Post, Nov 11, 2007

Cost of standing by your man


The soft-spoken Yuan Weijing may be one of the bravest people in China. Over the past two years, the 31-year-old woman has been followed constantly, insulted, threatened, beaten and kidnapped. But despite thepressure, the mother of two has refused to back down.

While the police have failed to offer any justification for the treatment of the young woman, the reason is understood. Ms Yuan is the wife of Chen Guangcheng , a blind activist who has exposed forced sterilisations and late-stage abortions by family planning officials in Linyi , in his native Shandong province .

Ms Yuan says her situation is 'extremely bad'. Her house is guarded by two separate shifts of seven police, who stand there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. She says she's only allowed to go out to buy food, and can't even visit her four-year-old son, who is living with her mother in another town. 'My teeth hurt, but they won't let me see a dentist,' she says in a telephone interview. 'I'm in a lot of pain, but I can't force my way past them. I'm just one woman with a child and they're seven men.'

Chen was charged with 'deliberately damaging property and gathering a mob to disrupt traffic' in June last year, and in August was sentenced to four years and three months in prison. Ms Yuan and her lawyers say the charges were trumped up and the trial was a farce. Key witnesses say they were coerced by the police into lying, and others did not show up at the trial after police threatened them. Chen had to be represented by court-appointed lawyers after the authorities detained three members of his defence team the night before his trial.

After visiting her husband in prison and seeing he was injured - he was apparently beaten by other inmates on the orders of prison officials for refusing to shave his head - she became even more determined to fight for his release.

In order to get the word out on how her husband was being treated, Ms Yuan made a daring escape on July 3. Under the pretext of going out to shop for vegetables, she visited a neighbour. While the police relaxed their guard outside, she slipped out the back door, climbed over three walls, and then walked to a nearby bus station where a relative was waiting with her two-year-old daughter. Mother and child then boarded a bus for the 10-hour ride to the capital.

Meanwhile, Hu Jia , a human rights defender in Beijing, was quietly notified by a middleman using a safe internet channel - activists believe it cannot be easily tapped by Beijing's internet monitors. He was waiting at the Beijing bus station when Ms Yuan arrived in the middle of the night, and drove her past unsuspecting public security officers and took her to his small flat in the Beijing suburbs. Ms Yuan was soon noticed, however, and a contingent of Shandong police and other officials were soon camping out at the entrance to Mr Hu's block.

Ms Yuan has a photo of seven or eight police sitting around her house. She also pulls out a frightening photograph of Li Fangping , one of a small number of lawyers who have dared to take on human rights cases. In the photo, a bloodied Mr Li is lying in a hospital bed in Linyi, having suffered serous injuries when unknown attackers beat him over the head with metal instruments.

'It was probably the Shandong police, but it was done mafia-style,' Mr Hu says.

The couple met in 2001 after Ms Yuan, a recent unemployed college graduate who majored in English, called into a local radio station talk show expressing frustration about not being able to find a teaching job. Mr Chen tracked her down and called her with words of encouragement.

The two became friends, talking on the phone frequently. They later met - their villages were 100km apart - and soon decided to marry, despite very strong opposition from Ms Yuan's family.

'She could have had an easier life, of course, had she listened to her mother and made a conventional 'good' marriage in local terms,' says Jerome Cohen, a leading expert on the Chinese legal system who has known the family for three years.

Mr Cohen says that not only did she marry a blind man, but also one 'who insisted on fighting for the rights of the disabled in ways that embroiled them both in great risks, unpleasantness and penury'.

Her husband had studied traditional Chinese medicine and massage, like many blind people on the mainland, but he was more interested in the difficult issues rural people were facing, and began to focus on this. He threw himself into his work, teaching himself about mainland law along the way.

Before the two met, Ms Yuan, who came from a relatively comfortable rural background, had shown no particular interest in such things. Mr Hu says that Ms Yuan was a 'very, very normal person' prior to meeting her husband.

Ms Yuan says when she first got married, she was concerned about her husband's safety and urged him to stop his work. 'I was worried about the family,' she says, 'and we were already struggling.'

But once she began meeting troubled farmers and disabled people, she gained a new appreciation for the problems people were facing. 'I could understand their needs and I was very moved,' she says.

They began looking into the birth-control problem in April 2005 after villagers contacted them about forced abortions and sterilisations. Ms Yuan says they felt they had to do something to help these people. With his wife's English background, Chen was able to reach outside of China, and with her at his side, he was able to get around more easily. 'Guangcheng can't see,' she once told Mr Hu. 'So I'll be his eyes.'

Mr Cohen, who once stayed at the Chen's farm home for several days, says he admires her 'calm, objective, sensible, matter of fact manner amid often incredible tensions'. The American lawyer and scholar says Ms Yuan is devoted to her husband.

'Because of her modest manner, which precludes her from interjecting her own opinion before he [Chen] has had a say, it took me a while to realise how smart and thoughtful she is. And now that she has been on her own, the crisis has brought out her true grit and determination.'

Then on August 24, a year to the day after Chen was sentenced to prison, Ms Yuan made her way to Beijing's airport to board a plane for Manila, where she was to receive the prestigious Magsaysay Award on behalf of her husband. She checked in for her flight without any trouble, but when she got to the security check, she was grabbed by plainclothes police, who seized her passport, mobile phone, video camera and a recording device. She was turned over to Shandong police and was sent back home. When she resisted, police reportedly pulled her hair, twisted her arms and struck her on the back and legs.

The police told Reuters in a fax a week later that she was prevented from leaving because her passport had expired. However, she says that her travel document was valid until March 23, 2008, she had a valid visa issued by the Philippines and she had already checked in successfully for her flight.

A week later she went out 'to buy food', this time with only one police officer following her. She gave him the slip on the street and made it on to a Beijing-bound bus where her two lawyers were waiting. The bus was stopped soon afterwards and she was forcibly carried off - getting banged up along the way, she says.

Ms Yuan has her two-year-old daughter living with her and her 70-year-old mother-in-law, while her son, four, is with her mother. As she's not allowed out, she has not been able to return to her parents' home to see her son.

'The only contact I have with the outside world is through this mobile phone,' she says, adding that her phone conversations were not interrupted, but obviously monitored.

She says her husband is no longer being deprived of food, and has not been beaten again since the last time, but that he's still not allowed any Braille materials to read and is not allowed to write. 'He can't do anything but sit there all day,' she says.

When asked if she fears for her safety, she replies quickly: 'No, because I've done nothing wrong.

'There are some things that are more important,' she says, 'such as my freedom and that of my husband.'

Mr Hu says: 'She's suffered everything with him. She has great strength.'

He recalls the couple being surrounded by about 30 men outside her village last year and that Ms Yuan 'showed no fear', and even tried to protect him. 'When she saw I was surrounded, she tried to push the men away,' he says. 'I was hit, but had it not been for her, it would have been much worse.'

He compares Ms Yuan to his own wife, Zeng Jinyan, who has shown a similar courage in supporting her husband.

'The two of them have been tempered by pressure and fear,' he says.

Ms Yuan says she has no regrets about her decision to marry Chen and the bitter experiences the marriage has brought her. But she says with obvious frustration in her voice that she has exhausted her options to free him. 'I don't have enough strength or ability to do anything more for him,' she says. 'I can only tell the outside world and wait and hope.'