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

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 28, 2006


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.

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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.

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.