Laws and lawlessness
And he really knows firsthand what he’s talking about.
In 2005, after helping villagers prepare a lawsuit over a brutal campaign of forced abortion and sterilization, blind lawyer and legal activist Chen Guangcheng was arrested. After a grossly unfair trial, he was sentenced to four years in prison for ‘damaging property’ and ‘disrupting traffic. After completing his sentence in 2010, he was «released», only to be placed under a terror regime of house arrest, tight surveillance and brutal raids on his family.
In April 2012, Chen risked everything by escaping and making his way to the American embassy in Beijing. After a potential diplomatic crisis and frantic negotiations between the two almost-super powers, Chen was finally allowed to leave China. On 19 May, he arrived in New York, where he will study at the New York University.
To serve and protect?
Alas, Chen’s safe arrival in the US is not the end of the story. The Chinese authorities continue to harass and prosecute Chen’s family, friends and network of activists in what looks like a vendetta against anyone who helped the now well-known activist.
Also, Chen Guangcheng is not the only public interest lawyer using the Chinese legal system to challenge oppression and illegal prosecution. And he is not the only one paying a terrible price as a result. According to Chen himself, the problem is not that China lacks laws.
«Although China’s criminal laws, like those of every country, are in need of constant improvement, if faithfully implemented they could yet offer its citizens significant protection against arbitrary detention, arrest and prosecution,» he writes in an op-ed in the New York Times.
In real life today, however, the opposite seems to be true. The Chinese authorities have turned the legal system into a powerful weapon for silencing anyone struggling for rights that are in fact guaranteed by law – at least on paper.
“China’s government must confront these crucial differences between the law on the books and the law in practice. This issue of lawlessness may be the greatest challenge facing the new leaders who will be installed this autumn by the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party,” Chen concludes.
At the heart of diplomacy
In his op-ed, Chen also asks the government and people of the United States and other democratic countries to insist that the Chinese government investigate the lawless punishment he suffered. I sincerely believe that any government that calls itself democratic – as well as we, the people of the world – ought to stand up for Chen and all the brave Chinese activists and lawyers who risk everything daily, fighting for rights that we take for granted. So does Human Rights First.
Join them in calling on US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to raise the plight of Chinese lawyers consistently in discussions with Chinese officials. Ask her to urge other senior officials in the Obama administration to do the same. Clinton recently stated that human rights are “at the heart of our diplomacy” with China. If that statement is to mean more than the Chinese laws do at the moment, the United States must make the end of persecution of lawyers and other activists a top priority.