In China today, a transformation of dazzling speed and complexity is reshaping society and calling forth new leaders. Chung To and Chen Guangcheng are two of these. Each one in his own way, and on his own initiative, has stepped forward to address an urgent contemporary need. Where others have been slow to act, they have acted.
Chen Guangcheng was born in a tiny village in Shandong Province. Blinded by a fever when he was an infant, he was denied schooling for most of his youth. Instead, he soaked in knowledge by listening to the radio and absorbing the classic Chinese stories his father read to him. At seventeen, he entered a school for the blind and by age thirty he had completed a university course in massage and acupuncture therapy. By this time, Chen's independent spirit had been thoroughly aroused.
When local officials in 1996 refused to honor a law exempting disabled persons from the annual agricultural tax-thus imposing an illicit burden on his own parents-Chen took his grievance all the way to central authorities in Beijing, and won! Local people with similar grievances began to seek his advice. By diligently studying law books read to him by others, he became a "barefoot lawyer" and helped his neighbors to register their complaints effectively and file civil cases in the local courts.
In 1998, Chen led farmers in Yinan County in protest against a river-polluting paper factory and persuaded an international donor to fund a deep well as an alternative to the filthy river water. He launched a project to advance the legal rights of the disabled and filed a case against a public transportation company in Beijing for refusing to honor the law providing free rides to the blind. This created an unwelcome national stir.
Indeed, by this time, Chen's activism had drawn the irate attention of the local authorities. He was investigated and harassed. In 2003, anonymous wall posters in Linyi City, where he lived, called upon people to break his legs.
Chen was thus already a noted thorn in the side of Yinan County officials in 2004 when they launched a ruthless campaign to bring the county within government population-control quotas-by coercing mothers-to-be into late-term abortions and thousands of other women into involuntary sterilization. All of this was in violation of an existing law requiring informed consent. The outcry soon reached Chen, who meticulously documented the abuses and worked with the victims and lawyers to organize a class-action suit against the responsible officials-the first case of its kind in China and also the first concerted domestic challenge to the use of violence in China's population policy. The suit failed, but led to an investigation by the State Family Planning Commission and a tacit admission of excesses. Meanwhile, Chen took the issue to the press and diplomatic corps and onto the Internet, leading to global exposure.
For this, he paid a heavy price. Back in Linyi, Chen's cell phone was jammed, his computer seized; he and his wife and friends were repeatedly beaten. He was confined to his house, abducted and held secretly for three months, and then finally charged with disturbing public order in connection with a demonstration on his behalf. In a trial behind closed doors to which his own lawyers were not admitted, he was convicted and is now serving a prison term of four years and three months.
Chen's hope is in the rule of law. He is energizing the grass roots and, with many others, challenging Chinese local authorities to obey the laws of the state. But this will not happen until citizens learn to act, he says. "People should protect their rights themselves."
In electing Chen Guangcheng to receive the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his irrepressible passion for justice in leading ordinary Chinese citizens to assert their legitimate rights under the law.