(CNSNews.com) – Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has called for the U.S. to protect Cheng Guangcheng and his family, putting further pressure on the Obama administration over the plight of the blind Chinese activist who exposed extensive forced abortion and sterilization linked to Beijing’s “one-child” policy.
Under house arrest since his Sept. 2010 release following a four-year prison term, Chen escaped from his home in Shandong province a week ago and reportedly sought protection from U.S. diplomats in Beijing.
The State Department and U.S. Embassy have declined to comment, and the Chinese government has also said nothing about the incident.
Advocacy groups involved in the Chen case say people associated with him have been detained. There are also concerns about his wife, Yuan Weijing, who had been confined with Chen to their home near Linyi, and other family members.
“My hope is that U.S. officials will take every measure to ensure that Chen and his family members are protected from further persecution,” Romney said in a statement. “This event points to the broader issue of human rights in China.
“Any serious U.S. policy toward China must confront the facts of the Chinese government’s denial of political liberties, its one-child policy, and other violations of human rights,” Romney added. “Our country must play a strong role in urging reform in China and supporting those fighting for the freedoms we enjoy.”
According to China Aid, a Texas-based Christian organization headed by a former Tiananmen Square movement student leader, Bob Fu, “Chen is under U.S. protection and high level talks are currently under way between U.S. and Chinese officials regarding Chen’s status.”
Fu said the case marks “a pivotal moment for U.S. human rights diplomacy. Because of Chen’s wide popularity, the Obama administration must stand firmly with him or risk losing credibility as a defender of freedom and the rule of law. If there is a reason why Chinese dissidents revere the U.S., it is for a moment like this.”
The incident comes just days before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are scheduled to hold a round of U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks in the Chinese capital. The Chen case has the potential to cause serious friction; Beijing is highly sensitive about U.S. criticism of its human rights record.
Last week Reggie Littlejohn, president of the human rights group Women’s Rights Without Frontiers which has been advocating on Chen’s behalf, learned from an activist named He Peirong that she had helped Chen to escape and drove him to Beijing.
“We are thrilled that Chen Guangcheng has escaped house arrest, but are very concerned for the safety of his family,” she said, urging Clinton to raise the case during her talks in Beijing this week.
On Thursday, He Peirong was herself detained, according to Littlejohn.
She called He was “a hero for the brave role she played in helping Chen escape. She knew that this courageous act might cost her her freedom, and yet she risked everything to help Chen. Now, we need to help her.”
Others who have reportedly been detained in connection with Chen’s escape include his nephew, Chen Kegui and a Beijing-based human rights advocate Guo Yushan. A leading Chinese dissident, Hu Jia, who was photographed with Chen in recent days – the photo was posted online – was held by police for 24 hours.
In a video message addressed to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Chen accused local officials by name of abusing him and his family over a lengthy period. He challenged the premier – who has been speaking publicly about the importance of the rule of law – to act against those who break the law and those who gave the orders.
In the video, which has been posted on the Internet, Chen also expressed grave concern about his family’s welfare.
The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said if Chen has found refuge with a foreign government he and his family should be given political asylum.
“Chen deserves to be able to lead a normal life,” it said. “It was his defence of human rights that led to his arrest. He is not a criminal.”
In 2005 Chen, a self-taught lawyer, uncovered large-scale abuses in Linyi against parents who had contravened China’s coercive “one-child” policy regulations.
He discovered that officials were forcing parents of two children to be sterilized, while women carrying their third baby were compelled to have abortions. Thousands of people were allegedly affected, and he attempted without success to help bring a class-action lawsuit. (An English translation of Chen’s 2005 field notes can be seen here.)
The allegations were posted on the Internet and passed on to foreign media, prompting a central government inquiry that found Linyi officials had violated citizens’ civil rights.
Chen’s activism angered local officials and amid a campaign of harassment he was convicted of “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic” and sentenced to four years and three months’ imprisonment.
Following his release, Chen was held under house arrest and he and his wife were subjected to a sustained campaign of assaults and intimidation.
His case began to draw growing attention, and people who tried to visit him were blocked, sometimes violently, by local officials and hired thugs.
Supporters in China launched a Web site inviting people to submit photographs of themselves wearing sunglasses in a gesture of solidarity with Chen who, being blind, usually wears them. A parallel campaign was launched outside China by Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.Chen’s case was raised during a Capitol Hill press conference last October on the state of Chinese human rights, and in a speech in Hawaii the following month Clinton mentioned Chen in connection with U.S. concerns about China’s human rights record.