Chinese rule-of-law activist becomes a case in point

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A blind "barefoot lawyer" has infuriated half the officials in Shandong Province with a case that highlights many of China's unfinished civil reforms: humane treatment, due process, and rule of law.

For Chen Guangcheng – who has been under siege and arrest for a year – the problem is that he is that case.

Just two years ago, Mr. Chen was a flamboyant local hero and self-taught legal eagle who used the legal system to shut down a paper factory that was poisoning the water supply. His wedding was televised locally.

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Yet in 2005, his legal zeal began to get him in trouble. Chen's crusade to halt the forced detention and sterilization of women in order to meet local quotas – a practice that has largely stopped in most of China – did not go over well in Linyi, where bonds are tight between officials, police, and hired thugs, much like the rural segregated US South of 50 years ago.

Chen has lived under house arrest for a year, unable to talk to the outside world, his lawyers and friends beaten and in jail facing dubious charges of disturbing public order.

"This is justice in the Chinese countryside, not like Zhang Yimou's candied film version," says Jerome Cohen of New York University, who is assisting Chen. "There are no kind, avuncular public security officers or judges to mete out justice. They can instead be found surrounding his house. No local lawyer has been willing to help, and Beijing lawyers who have sought to defend Chen have been repeatedly beaten."

Chen's challenge to country justice makes him a kind of Rosa Parks of China. His standoff with Linyi authorities and Mayor Li Qun, who served briefly as assistant to the mayor of New Haven Conn., has captured the imagination of legal reformers here and top foreign legal eagles – raising the question of whether law in China is a tool for control or is evolving into a system to adjudicate justice. One question is: Will he go free?

Chen's lawyers say it is David vs. Goliath. Officials in Linyi frame it as big-city lawyers in cahoots with "running dog foreign devils" who want to make China look bad.

Thursday, Chen's Beijing-based lawyer, Li Jinsong, told the Monitor he was stepping down as chief counsel. Mr. Li, whose car was turned over by thugs in Linyi while Li was in it, will be replaced by Xu Zhiyong, a well-known lawyer who was beaten last year in Linyi when he tried to visit Chen.

"Forced abortions take place regularly, but no one dares to litigate but a few barefoot lawyers," Mr. Xu said in an interview. "Local government is taking revenge on the barefoot lawyer [Chen]."

The case criss-crosses sensitive themes: rising peasant anger; the controversial one-child policy; China's arbitrary legal system; corrupt officials; the recent use of thugs for public security; and Beijing's indecision about riding herd on official local Mafioso – even when they damage China's image.

"This is disgusting for China," says Beijing lawyer Pu Xiaoching. "Chen's help to the villagers is a right thing. That the local government must bully a blind man shows how fragile their situation is."

When Chen started investigating a new "violent family planning policy" in Linyi, he never thought he would become a target so quickly, his lawyers say. Police blockaded Chen's house last August round the clock. Chen was arrested March 11. Authorities claimed not to know his whereabouts until June. Last week, a trial for what are considered dubious charges was cancelled after the prosecution said it needed more time.

Behind the popular anger is a brutal policy overseen by Mayor Qun in Linyi. (Qun's memoir of his six months in New Haven in 2000 is published in Chinese as "I was a Mayor's Assistant in America.") Linyi police forced late-term abortions, and rounded up women who had already had one child for sterilization. If a woman could not be found, police detained family members. In some villages around Linyi, up to half the population left.

Chen did not attack the one-child policy. It was the detentions and extortions he took on – and the central government did at one point dismiss several local officials.

In one case examined by Chen, Xing Aixia, targeted for sterilization, left with her migrant husband. The police detained the couple's mothers until Ms. Xing returned. In some cases, roundups of up to 100 peasants in a room resulted in beatings. Beijing lawyers visiting Chen last year were shocked by conditions.

Chen has managed to retain the love and respect of many locals. A factory worker in Linyi contacted by phone at random, said Chen has not been seen in public for months. "We know that Chen is innocent and a good man, and that the government is wrong," the worker said.

Beijing lawyers point out that Chen has been steadily denied justice. His house arrest without trial or due process is illegal, they say. When he managed to escape to Beijing in September, Shandong police illegally seized him and took him home.

Currently, Chen is being held in association with two charges. The first begins on Feb. 5, the eve of Spring Festival, China's main holiday.

Police blocking Chen's house erected a tent in front of the door of Chen's neighbor. The neighbor was arrested after protest. His wife and grandmother, followed by a crowd, went to the jail to ask about him. The police denied that they took him. His grandmother fainted in the snow, prompting the crowd to ask for an ambulance. When police refused, angry members of the crowd broke windows in three cars. Later, authorities charged the blind Chen with directing the crowd to act.

On March 11, Chen was allowed out, ostensibly to cross the street and discuss his case with an official. But no official was present. On the way back, Chen's party tried to hire it to visit the local party secretary. Police halted traffic, took pictures, and charged him with "gathering a crowd to disrupt road communications." After that he disappeared for three months.

The debate now is whether a trial for Chen is beneficial. Xu says a trial will not be fair. Witnesses have, unusually, given testimony to defense lawyers. But they will probably not be allowed to appear in court.

Li, the lawyer who stepped down, worries that the judge in Linyi, who like all judges is not independent, could "trick" the defense by telling them the trial is delayed - then hold one anyway.

Before he quit this month, Li published an open letter. He describes a crowd of more than 10 persons on Highway 205 last month, waiting for him and another lawyer. The thugs tried to pull the lawyers out of the car and finally turned the car over. Li called 110, the emergency service.

When the police arrived they took no photos. When Li took photos, thugs smashed his camera and hit him.

Lawyer Xu advocates an open trial, but does not expect one. "If people could attend and know the truth, they would change their ideas," he says. "They would see what is happening. But instead the local government is closing and blocking everything."

Paul Gerwitz, a China legal expert, says, "There is bottom up pressure for legal reform in China, and China has the fastest movement of legal change anywhere."But if you define rule of law as the ability to constrain excess, China is not there yet."

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