- - Monday, May 7, 2012

The daring escape of Chinese legal advocate Chen Guang-cheng after 1 1/2 years of illegal home confinement was nothing short of miraculous. It took the world - not to mention Chinese officials and Mr. Chen’s guards - by complete surprise.

It was with great relief that I learned of his escape and his reaching safety at the American Embassy in Beijing, a few days before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner landed in Beijing for meetings on economics and security. While Mr. Chen was at the embassy, the Chinese government admitted that his confinement had been improper and said he was free and could attend a university in China.

My relief soon turned to dismay, however. Those understandings apparently were not written down. The embassy never arranged for him to speak with me as he requested. After he moved from the embassy to a Beijing hospital, no one from the embassy remained with him, and no American officer was able to meet with him the next day. The Chinese government detained some members of his family and some of his supporters. The whereabouts of others were unknown.

The strong possibility that Mr. Chen was in significant danger prompted me to convene a hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China on Thursday. One witness, the Rev. Bob Fu, was able to accomplish what the embassy had not, and in the hearing room, we all heard Mr. Chen’s request to travel to the United States with his family.

Who is Chen Guangcheng, and what did he do to so provoke the Chinese government?

Blinded by a childhood illness, Mr. Chen pushed past profound barriers to school himself in Chinese law. He became an advocate for the rights of the vulnerable, including disabled persons and rural farmers.

Years later, when local villagers told him of forced abortions and sterilizations, Mr. Chen and his wife, Yuan Weijing, documented the stories, compiling evidence for a class-action lawsuit. Their efforts gained international attention in 2005, and it was their challenge to China’s population-control policies that apparently spurred the harsh and extended official retaliation that included beatings and prison.

Years of careful studies and many congressional hearings have given us a good picture of China’s draconian “one child” policy. For gullible foreigners, China’s government paints a picture that the policy is being eased, but the few exceptions it permits do not fundamentally modify the policy’s rough, harsh, brutal and ugly character.

The smooth English phrase the Chinese use is “family planning.” However, the plan is not the family’s plan but the state’s plan. Officials down to the village and neighborhood level maintain an extreme vigilance for “out-of-plan” births. They use the plain word “measures” to mask what they do - forced abortions and sterilizations. When an out-of-plan birth takes place, they impose crushing fines on the couple. Unwed mothers are compelled by the state to abort.

Among China’s many coercions and tyrannies, this is the one that touches the most Chinese - especially the women who are victimized and the children who are murdered in the womb or at birth.

For his robust defense of Chinese women and children against the crimes of forced abortion and sterilization, Mr. Chen served more than four years in prison on trumped-up charges. Upon release, he was locked up with his family in their village home under 24/7 surveillance. Mr. Chen, his wife, mother and children were repeatedly harassed, beaten and denied basic freedoms. Their daughter, Kesi, was prevented from attending school. This violation of a child’s right to an education was one more payback for her parents’ effrontery.

All this happened while Mr. Chen and his family were free citizens under Chinese law. It is no wonder that he felt it worth risking his life to escape those hellish conditions and seek help.

Many questions have been asked about the embassy’s meetings with Mr. Chen, and when the U.S. delegation returns to Washington, a review will be warranted. The prospect that the embassy rushed its handling of Mr. Chen because of the upcoming economic and security meetings is troubling.

An explosion of incisive news stories in both the traditional and social media, Mr. Chen’s dramatic appeal to the world during our commission’s hearing to protect his family, and ongoing work by American diplomats in Beijing apparently prompted the Chinese government to re-evaluate options for Mr. Chen. He should soon be studying at a university in the United States. I trust his family members will join him. He will receive a warm welcome in America.

To conclude the case, the Chinese government should ensure that Mr. Chen’s at-risk nephew, the other members of his extended family, those who support him and the brave young woman who drove him to Beijing, He Peirong, will be safe, too.

Those deprived of sight often develop acute hearing, and Mr. Chen heard the cries of millions of Chinese women who know the brutality of the “one child” policy. We cannot ignore their cries, and we cannot ignore the blind man who helped us hear them.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith is a New Jersey Republican.