Chen began educating poor Chinese farmers on their rights, and filed a class-action lawsuit against the Family Planning Commission office in Linyi, China on behalf of several families who had suffered under the one-child policy. He also called an American reporter from Time magazine and invited him to come and report on the abuses.
County officials sent a squad of 200 authorities to capture him in Sept. 2005, placing him briefly under house arrest before a formal arrest in June 2006. He says after his arrest, he was hustled off to a so-called "black jail" - an extralegal detention center run by security forces. He says he was subjected to maltreatment and torture there.
Chen would eventually be charged with "overbirthing," because he and his wife had a second child in defiance of the one-child policy. He was also charged with providing information to foreigners, because he had given an interview to the Washington Post.
Following his arrest, he says the Chinese government sent a team of 50 people to his village to spread propaganda and lies about him, telling everyone he was a foreign spy.
After he served his four-year sentence in jail, Chen and his family were kept under house arrest starting in 2010, during which he claims he and his family were repeatedly beaten and denied medical treatment.
In April 2012, in a dramatic escape, he slipped past the guards and scaled a wall in the middle of the night, breaking his foot in the process. He crawled beside a river, making his way out of town. Within hours, Chen met his nephew in a location they'd arranged before the escape, who drove him more than 300 miles to the US embassy in Beijing.
With the help of New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith, Chen was granted asylum in the United States in 2012 and has lived in the Washington D.C. area with his family since then.
"Since Chen made it to the United States, it's actually gotten worse in China under the current president. The religious freedom issue has gone from unconscionable to worse, which some thought could never happen," Congressman Smith told CNA in February 2019.
Chen has spoken out continually about the Communist Party's abuses, including its persecution of Christians and its authoritarian approach to Hong Kong. He says many of his fellow human right activists are still imprisoned or trapped in China.
Chen is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Though Chen is not himself a Christian, he told CNA last year that he supports freedom of thought and religion for all people.
"At the moment I don't believe in a specific god or religion. As for religion, I feel that it can make society kinder, and closer to a positive side of human nature and away from an evil side of human nature," he said.
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In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Chen has sharply criticised the Communist government's authoritarian response and the party's claims that it has the coronavirus under control.
"There is nothing about the CCP's numbers that are believable," Guangcheng said in April.
"What people are calculating is that roughly 700,000 may have died in China-in terms of people who have been infected, no one knows the numbers."
He has also claimed that the CCP has been using the crisis caused by the pandemic to crack down on dissent, detaining human rights activists at separate "so-called quarantine sites."
Chen also has been critical of the Vatican's September 2018 deal with Communist China on the appointment of bishops, calling it "a slap in the face to millions of Catholics and other faithful religious people in China who have suffered real persecution under the CCP."
"I grew up under this Party-State system and personally experienced the Communist Party's violence and brutality, and I have known and worked with countless individuals in China who have been persecuted for their beliefs," Chen wrote during Nov. 2018.