Bipartisan leaders of Congress came together in the nation’s capital on Aug. 1 to meet with and offer their support to Chinese pro-life activist Chen Guangcheng.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said that Chen’s example “reminds us why we cherish life and freedom so much, and why we work so hard to preserve and protect these fundamental values.”
Chen was welcomed on Capitol Hill to meet with Congressional leaders including Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had previously met with Chen in June in New York, where she praised his “courage” in working “to advocate for disadvantaged people in China.”
Pelosi has referred to the plight of Chen’s supporters and other human rights advocates in China as a matter of “urgent concern.”
Boehner thanked Chen and his family for their sacrifices “in the cause for human rights, religious freedom, and the rights of the unborn.”
While he acknowledged the importance of China’s economic relationship with the U.S., the speaker stressed that “the United States has an obligation to engage with China” in order to push for human rights reforms and other improvements.
“We cannot remain silent when fundamental human rights are being violated,” he said. “We cannot remain silent when religious liberty is under attack. And we cannot remain silent regarding China’s reprehensible 'one-child’ policy.”
“When it comes to guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of all her citizens, the Chinese government has a responsibility to do better,” Boehner said, “and the United States government has a responsibility to hold them to account.”
Blinded since youth, Chen gained international attention when he escaped from house arrest and was taken in by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on April 26.
The self-taught human rights lawyer had angered Chinese authorities by exposing brutal practices such as forced abortions and sterilizations that are routinely used to enforce the nation’s strict one child policy.
He spent more than four years in prison and was then placed under house arrest, where he says that he and his family were beaten and refused medical attention.
Chen agreed to leave the U.S. Embassy after being promised by the Chinese government that he and his family would be treated humanely. He was transported to a Beijing hospital on May 2.
However, he quickly raised concerns that China was not planning to keep its promises, telling American reporters that he wanted to come to the United States with his family to rest and recover safely.
After receiving a fellowship offer to study law and learn English at New York University's law school, Chen and his immediate family were eventually permitted to travel to the United States, arriving on May 19.
Following his meeting with House leaders, Chen attended an informal gathering of Congress members who had supported him during his time in prison.
The gathering was hosted by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees human rights issues.
“Chen is a hero,” Smith said. “He, his family members and his attorneys have all suffered torture because Chen defended women in Chinese counties who had been targeted, dragged into clinics and forced to abort their children.”
Smith noted that Chen “was first targeted by the Chinese in 2005” and has undergone “arbitrary arrests and detainment, brutal beatings in prison and house arrest for defending women from forced abortions.”
The New Jersey congressman had worked for years to draw attention to Chen’s plight, nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 and holding multiple Congressional hearings on his status.
Chen also spoke at the gathering, expressing gratitude and hope. He thanked those who had supported him in promoting human rights, “even if the results are not immediately visible.”
“The human rights situation in China has been deteriorating recently,” he said, and “the soft approaches taken some countries are delaying progress.”
However, he observed, “more Chinese are waking up, and that trend is a good one.”