Posts tagged: Linyi

What is Up with Chen Guangcheng?

Chen Guangcheng, entering a Beijing Hospital with US Ambassaor Gary Locke and State Dep't Legal Advisor Harold Koh

More often than not, I am my friends’ go-to China person; something in the news pops up with China, I get the questions.  So I wasn’t surprised on Saturday when over some carrot cake at the Chelsea Market a friend of mine had questions about Chen Guangcheng: if he cared so much about human rights in China, why would he leave?  What is up with the Chinese government, keeping a blind man trapped in his own home?  How did things get so messy between the U.S. government and Chen?

It’s been almost a month since Chen fled the home that illegally became his prison. So what exactly is up with Chen’s escape and to answer some questions – what does it all mean?

Chen’s Escape Has Propelled Human Rights to the Top of the US-China Agenda

My friend’s question on Saturday caught me off guard – does Chen really care about human rights in China if he fled to the protection of the U.S. Embassy, ostensibly to seek asylum and leave China.

To ask a man with a wife and two children to be a martyr for his cause is asking too much.  As this blog has recounted previously, since Chen’s release from prison (oddly convicted of a traffic disturbance) did not result in freedom.  Instead, for the past year and a half, Chen and his family have been subjected to illegal house arrest and at times, physical torture by his captures.

It is true that by departing China, Chen’s ability to change China’s current system will be much reduced if not extinguished.  But his heroic flight has perhaps done more to highlight the Chinese government’s recent illegal oppression of dissent than anything else.  Over the past year and a half, this blog has increasingly written about the Chinese government’s crackdown on China’s nascent rights defending (weiquan) lawyers. Aside from people already interested in the issues, these posts – and the acts of repression which they have focused on – have received little attention.

Chen’s escape and his subsequent stay at the U.S. Embassy  altered this focus. With Hillary Clinton arriving for the Strategic and Economic

Inspiring Architecture? The US Embassy in Beijing

Dialogue (S&ED), the focus of U.S.-China relations shifted to human rights.  For one week, as the world watched, the U.S. and China’s relationship was thrown back to a 1980s-Cold War paradigm, when ideology played a more governing role.  For one week, the Western media’s attention finally focused on the repression of rights defending lawyers, and the lip service the Chinese government gives “rule of law” when it comes to civil rights and civil liberties.

It is amazing that a single man’s act, that one blind man’s heroic act, can still change the dialogue in U.S.-China relations.  It is a hopeful reminder that in this globalized world, individuals still matter; that one man’s quest for freedom is still “news.”  And don’t think Chen’s act was not a heroic one.  Not only was a blind man able to find his way to Beijing, but imagine if he wasn’t; imagine if he was caught.  Likely his fate would match that of Gao Zhisheng, a rights defending lawyer who, while in government custody, remains missing.

The U.S. Government’s Actions Supported Human Rights

Some have criticized the U.S. government – or more aptly, the Obama Administration – for its dealings with the Chinese government over Chen.  Initially, the U.S. Embassy worked out a deal with the Chinese government whereby Chen would stay in China, study law at a university in a coastal city away from the thugs of his hometown, and be left alone with his family.  This was what Chen initially wanted.

But once he left the safety of the embassy for a Beijing hospital, Chen began to reconsider his options.  As Prof. Jerome A. Cohen recounted to CNN, the promised U.S. Embassy official was unable to stay with Chen at the hospital and once he began speaking other rights defending lawyers – friends he hadn’t been able to speak to for a year – he began to more clearly understand the increased oppression of rights defending lawyers in China.  Chen was scared; Chen realized that without full information, he misjudged the situation.  That’s when he vocally requested that he be able to leave China for the United States.

Were some in the U.S. Embassy a touch too naive to rely on the Chinese government’s promises?  Most likely.  But being naive is not the same as turning one’s back to human rights.  It was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to allow Chen into the U.S. Embassy in the first place.  Chinese citizens cannot just willy-nilly enter the U.S. Embassy; even American citizens are allowed limited access to their embassy (which resembles a high-security prison).  As the N.Y. Times has recounted, embassy officials were notified of Chen’s flight to Beijing and on April 25, Secretary Clinton gave the authorization to sneak Chen into the embassy compound.  Secretary Clinton knew full well that by providing that approval, a throw-down with the Chinese government on the issue of human rights was certain and the ultimate outcome unclear. It is unfortunate – although not all together shocking given the current acrimonious status of politics – that Washington D.C. cannot view this moment as a proud one for America and its ideals; that the web of support that both parties have built for a human rights network in China over the years enabled Chen to come to our door.   Instead, it appears that what could otherwise be a proud moment for Americans, is becoming a political tug-of-war.

Who is Driving the Bus? The Chinese Central Government’s Lack of Control

Beep Beep! Who drives this bus??

What is perhaps the most shocking of all from this whole situation is the Chinese central government’s lack of control of local governments. Chen’s persecution has largely been conducted by the local government in his hometown, with local government officials still seething after his attempt to bring a lawsuit against them for forced abortions.  But even when Chen fled to Beijing, his safety could not be guaranteed, hence his changed desire to leave for the United States.  Many of his relatives left in their villages are being persecuted by local officials.  It makes one wonder – who really drives the bus in China?

Imagine a United States where Governor George Wallace could ignore federal law, have his way and continue segregation in his home state of Alabama.  Likely you can’t.  It’s unfathomable to think that a national government is unable to enforce its own laws, and in the case of China, that a supposed authoritarian dictatorship cannot control lower level party members.

Chen’s case reflects a center weaker than anyone previously thought.  And that is what is most frightening and should give people pause.  Does China really have the power to become a rising superpower or will it revert to its warlord past, where each city is governed by its own power broker and the central government remains impotent?

While China’s weakness appears to manifest itself often in human rights issues, it should not be just a concern for human rights advocates.  Anyone working in or with China – business people, government officials – should be troubled.  A weak center, especially as China undergoes an important leadership transition this year, does not bode well for China.

Prof. Jerome Cohen – The Fixer

On a final note, I want to focus on Prof. Jerome Cohen and his role in all of this.  As a research fellow for two years, I had the privilege of working

Prof. Jerome A. Cohen

with Prof. Cohen at NYU’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute.  In that time, I got to know a kind, brilliant man who never ceased to amaze me.  It was Prof. Cohen who first identified the ingenuity and necessity of Chen’s unschooled, “barefoot lawyer” approach in 2003 and deservedly catapulted him to the world stage.

While my two years with Prof. Cohen were filled with inspiring moments, I have never been more proud of him than I was with his handling of the Chen Guangcheng situation.  While this is all purely based on hearsay, it appears that it was Prof.  Cohen who got the U.S. and China out of what was becoming a crisis situation.  Prof. Cohen’s lifetime of experience with China, including high-level delegations soon after Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, allowed him to realize that all that was needed was a practical solution where everyone could save face: a scholarship for Chen to study law at NYU’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute and invitation for his wife and children to join him.

Now we wait and see.  The United States has approved Chen’s visa application and just yesterday he applied for his Chinese passport.  Although the Chinese government could renege on the deal, that looks increasingly less likely and ultimately not in their best interest.  It’s never a satisfying moment when one of your citizens essentially seeks protection from a foreign government for human rights abuses, but on some level, the Chinese government is likely happy that Chen, who has long been a rabble rouser and a cause célèbre for other Chinese rights defenders and foreign friends, is leaving the country.  Unfortunately for Chen and his family, he will likely never be able to return to his home country.

Slow Killing in Rural China

By , February 29, 2012

Human rigfhts activist and lawyer, Chen Guangcheng

One would think that a poor, illiterate, blind man, who eventually learned to read in his early 20s, taught himself the law, and used those legal skills to protect the rights of society’s most vulnerable, would be celebrated.

Unfortunately, that is not the case for Chen Guangcheng.  Chen, a blind, self-taught lawyer in rural China who blazed the way for China’s nascent disability rights law is currently under unlawful house arrest with his wife and two small children, guarded 24 hours a day by local thugs, denied access to medical care as well as to all visitors and at times subject to physical abuse.

While this has been the status quo for Chen and his family since September 2010, the situation has just become more dire.  Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), a well-respected China human rights group, reported last week that a sympathetic guard informed CHRD that Chen has grown increasingly ill, collapsing after walking only a few steps in his yard.  Chen suffers from severe gastroenteritis, a condition left untreated while he served an unjust four-year-and three-month prison term and that still remains untreated even though he is “free.”

It is time that the United States’ government publicly expresses its concern for Chen’s health, question the legal basis of Chen’s current house imprisonment, highlight China’s violations of international law treatment in its treatment of Chen, and demand that China follow through with its invitation to the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights to visit its country. Recent developments reflect that international pressure may change the Chinese government’s behavior.

How Did Chen Guangcheng Go from Good Guy to Enemy of the Chinese State?

Chen’s short legal career centered on fighting for the rights of China’s most vulnerable: those with disabilities.  After winning a series of cases, including one requiring the Beijing subway system to waive fares for the disabled, Chen turned his attention to a new injustice that was occurring in his own hometown in Linyi county in Shandong Province.

In early 2005, Chen’s neighbors began to tell him stories of forced abortions, forced sterilizations, and even abduction and physical abuse of relatives by government officials so that the Linyi government could meet a significantly lower birth rate quota imposed by Linyi’s new mayor, Li Qun.

While China maintains a one-child policy, forced abortions and sterilizations are illegal under Chinese law.  Unfortunately, as an investigation by Chen and supportive lawyers from Bejing uncovered, because local officials’ promotions are tied with keeping birthrates low, the law criminalizing forced abortions and sterilizations is sometimes ignored, especially in rural areas.  By the summer of 2005, Chen filed multiple lawsuits in Linyi on behalf of many of the victims.

But as Chen was to find out, China’s legal reform only goes so far: fighting for the rights of the disabled are acceptable; but cases challenging China’s sacrosanct and politically sensitive one-child policy are decidedly not.  Even a well-respected, blind rights lawyer puts his safety on the line if he seeks to challenge the administration of the one-child policy.

In what amounted to kangaroo justice, in September 2005, Chen was placed under strict house arrest by the Linyi government, eventually charged with “gathering crowds to undermine traffic order,” found guilty in a trial where his lawyers were not allowed to attend, and in 2006, sentenced to four years-and-three-months in prison.

Chen Guangcheng’s Life Since September 2010 – An Absurd Version of Freedom

In September 2010, Chen completed his four-plus-year jail term only to learn that his home would become his prison.  Lacking any legal basis under Chinese law and in contravention to multiple international treaties, since his “release,” Chen and his wife have not been able to leave their home.  Chen’s six-year old daughter, Kesi, was initially denied access to school.  But, after much domestic and international pressure, Kesi is now permitted to go to school, walked to and from school by the thugs who surround her home, unable to play with any of her classmates.

Freedom House reportsthat Chen and his family are completely surrounded by thugs hired by the Linyi government to keep all visitors out and keep Chen in.  It is estimated that the

Christian Bale, accosted by Linyi "security guards" in his attempt to visit Chen Guangcheng in December 2011

local government has hired almost 100 men to maintain 24-7 surveillance of Chen and his family.  These thugs resort to force to keep all visitors out, physically attacking Chen’s friends, reporters, foreign government officials, and even Batman star Christian Bale who attempted to visit Chen last December.  Freedom House also reports that surveillance checkpoints points have been set up on various roads into the village, six cameras positioned throughout the village to record all activity and two cell phone jammers make it impossible for Chen and his family to communicate with the outside world.

In February 2011, a sympathetic government source smuggled to ChinaAid, a U.S.-based China human rights group,   a video recording that Chen made of his new life.  Soon after ChinaAid posted the video to its website, the Linyi thugs entered Chen’s home and beat him and his wife for close to two hours.  After the severe beating, Chen and his wife were denied medical treatment.

The continued denial of all medical treatment and Chen’s worsening gastroenteritis has appeared to raise Chen’s medical condition to emergency status, distressing his friends and supporters. Chen’s longstanding friend lawyer Jiang Tianyong, himself the victim of ‘forced disappearance,’ retweeted a recent comment from another that ‘everybody’s now just waiting for the news that Chen Guangcheng has died; so we can erect a memorial for him….’ Jiang’s immediate and emotional reaction to any thought that his friend could die: ‘you’re really sick.’

Prof. Jerome A. Cohen, a Chinese legal scholar with over 60 years of experience in China likely thought that China’s worst was behind it.  But the current situation with his friend Chen Guangcheng visibly alarms the old China hand.  “This cruel, slow killing seems to be the only way the Party can think of to rid itself of a courageous critic without having him appear to die in its custody” Cohen told China Law & Policy.

Will International Pressure Change the Chinese Government’s Treatment of Chen?

On one level, the internationally community doesn’t have a choice if it wants Chen Guangcheng to live.  But on another level, pressure in this case would be a smart strategic move.  Although the Chinese central government is fully aware of the abuse of Chen and his family, it isn’t directly perpetuating it.  The torture of Chen and his family is largely the result of Linyi’s officials’ vengeance.  In statements to foreign officials, Chinese officials have allegedly explained that “house arrest does not exist under Chinese law” and that Chen is free and leading a “normal life.”

If foreign and domestic pressure remains strong, the Chinese central government will have less of an incentive to acquiesce to the Linyi’s government blatant violations of Chinese law.  Other signs seem to indicate that not everyone in the Chinese government is on board with Linyi officials’ behavior.  Although Chen and his family are being held completely incommunicado, information is still able to get out.  ChinaAid receives information, including the smuggled video and letters from Chen’s wife, from a “reliable government source;” CHRD learned of Chen’s worsening medical condition from a sympathetic guard.

Chen & family

In October 2011, the Global Times, a state-run newspaper that is considered the voice of the Chinese Communist Party’s hardliners, published an editorial attempting to distance the central government from Linyi government’s actions.   As CHRD reported in “Let There Be Light, Let There Be Sincerity: Citizens Campaign to Free Chen Guangcheng,” there is a growing citizen campaign to free Chen, even with the censorship of most news regarding Chen.  In December 2011, several of Chen’s collegues and friends made a film about Chen – “Who is Chen Guangcheng” – publicly calling for his release (film is in Mandarin with no subtitles).

Foreign governments should hold the Chinese government to its statement that Chen is leading a “normal life” and specifically request that Chinese government officials accompany foreign officials to visit Chen Guangcheng.  Given his worsening condition, foreign governments should make this a priority.  Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington, DC offered the perfect opportunity to publicly raise the U.S. government’s concern for Chen’s health; unfortunately it didn’t.

The United Nations should bring public attention to China’s clear violations of the of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25, the right to adequate health) as well as violations of treaties it has voluntarily ratified including: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 12 for denial of medical care); the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Convention on Rights of the Child (for denying Kesi the freedom of association (Article 15), for the mental anguish caused by her imprisonment (Article 19), for denying her the right to play (Article 31)).   In addition, the Human Rights Council should look to issue a new opinion concerning Chen’s arbitrary detention to update its 2006 opinion when Chen was first held under unlawful house arrest.

Finally, the international community should demand that China follow through with its invitation to the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights to visit its country.  In 2009, the Chinese government invited the High Commissioner to visit China and see first-hand China’s human rights situation, both good and bad.  That was two years ago and China still hasn’t allowed the current High Commissioner to visit.  But if China waits only a few more months, it won’t have to worry: the current High Commissioner’s term expires this fall.

The fact that China verbally commits to human rights reviews and ratifies certain conventions demonstrates that international status means something to it; not necessarily enough to always abide by human rights laws, but enough for international pressure in the case of Chen to make a difference.

What About the Forced Abortions, the Issue that Caused all of this?

In September 2005, soon after Chen was placed under his first house arrest, China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission, the government agency that oversees China’s one-child policy, conducted its own investigation and announced that government-enforced abortions and sterilizations occurred in Linyi in contravention of China’s law.  Although many officials were arrested and penalized for their behavior, Li Qun, the mayor who initialized Linyi’s campaign of forced abortions, was eventually promoted and today serves as Party Secretary of the major metropolis Qingdao.

Li’s promotion demonstrates the importance of people like Chen Guangcheng, those willing to put their lives on the line to protect citizens’ rights and dignity; rule of law might not be what local governments want but it is what the Chinese people are desperate for.

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Below are sources that can provide more information on Chen Guangcheng, his legal career and his current struggle:

  • Philip Pan, Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, Chapter 7 – Blind Justice, (Simon & Schuster 2009) (describing Chen’s legal career, Linyi’s harsh one-child policy, and the 2006 arrest and trial of Chen);
  • Jerome A. Cohen has written and spoken extensively on Chen’s persecution since his release from prison.  Articles calling for change can be found here and here;
  • Peter Foster, Beijing correspondent for The Telegraph has a good piece here on the effectiveness of Chinese citizens’ “Free Chen Guangcheng” campaign and their efforts to enter his village.
  • Congressional-Executive Commission on China has brief background on Chen as well as a list of those who have attempted to visit him here (current through Dec. 11, 2011).

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