China Trips Up Its Barefoot Lawyers
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China Trips Up Its Barefoot Lawyers
by Jerome Alan Cohen
China�s Minister of Public Security, Zhou Yongkang, is a very powerful man.
Mr. Zhou, who has never studied law, is the PRC�s only law-related
government official to take part in the Politburo of the Chinese Communist
Party. At every level of the Chinese government, Mr. Zhou�s MPS underlings,
wearing their Party hats, dominate the Party political-legal committees that
�coordinate� the work of the courts, the prosecutors, the police and the
justice departments. Together with Luo Gan, a member of the Party�s
innermost sanctum�the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee�and the
leader of the nationwide Party Political-Legal Committee, Mr. Zhou is
responsible for law enforcement in China, an awesome and difficult burden.
During his almost three years in office, Mr. Zhou has made a number of
encouraging speeches urging his colleagues in the police to comply with the
nation�s gradually improving criminal-justice legislation. Less known is the
fact that he has presided over a number of important internal reforms within
These seek to make local public-security bureaus more obedient to national
legislation and the mps headquarters in Beijing rather than to the local
Party and government powerholders who have tended to control them. Under Mr.
Zhou, the mps has also adopted many regulations that, at least in principle,
reduce the likelihood that the police will continue to act arbitrarily.
Yet, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. warned Americans long ago, general
principles do not decide concrete cases. Every day in China, thousands of
outrageous actions by the police�including the secret police operating under
the less-visible Ministry of State Security�challenge the Politburo to
transform theory into practice and to address the nationwide multitude of
injustices resulting from police misconduct.
Twenty years ago a Chinese friend summed up the situation by saying: �High
officials speak beautiful words, but local officials do whatever they wish.�
Have things begun to change?
Among the many cases that cry out for Mr. Zhou�s attention, none is more
challenging than that of blind social activist Chen Guangcheng, a
34-year-old �barefoot lawyer� from dirt-poor Yinan County in Shandong
Province. Mr. Chen first surfaced outside of China in 2002 when Newsweek
featured him in an eight-page cover story on rural activists who are
learning law on their own and using it to resist the illegal demands of
Mr. Chen, for example, had been taking county tax collectors to the county
court because of their insistence that disabled people pay taxes from which
national legislation exempted them. The following year the United States
government invited Mr. Chen to America under its International Visitors
Program for four weeks of meetings with legal-aid groups and other experts
on access to justice.
Mr. Chen made a stunning impression. Young, handsome, earnest and
articulate, from behind dark glasses that hid his blindness, he spoke of
lawless conditions in the countryside with compelling clarity, confidence
and courage. When he and his able wife, who serves as his escort and reader,
returned to China, we met again in Beijing in the hope of persuading
professors, lawyers and law students to go down to the Shandong countryside
in order to train the hundreds of future barefoot lawyers Mr. Chen planned
to recruit in his county alone.
Soon after, my wife and I spent a few days in his village of 480 people in
order to get a better understanding of the varied legal needs of its
disabled and of the reasons why local lawyers and even the local office of
the disabled persons organization refused to take on cases that would put
them in opposition to the local government on which they depended. There was
evidently a demand for the services of barefoot lawyers like Mr. Chen.
Although his earliest lawsuits gave Mr. Chen some initial success, he found
it increasingly difficult to obtain relief for his �clients��a congeries of
blind, lame or mentally handicapped people�from county judges who are
appointed, paid and controlled by the very officials Mr. Chen was suing.
Moreover, county and township officials were subjecting him to growing
pressures to cease his activity.
They even tried to deprive him of the support of his fellow villagers, whose
loyalty Mr. Chen had ensured by persuading a British charity to endow his
village with an urgently-needed electronic well system. Yet, with the help
of a few human-rights lawyers from Beijing, he continued to pursue his
litigations against local officials.
The tipping point came this summer when Mr. Chen was overwhelmed and
depressed by the demands of hundreds of people in his area who, since March
of this year, had been suffering a broad range of official abuses inflicted
in the name of birth control. Desperate to put an end to Linyi City�s brutal
campaign of forced abortions and sterilizations, and the massive illegal
imprisonments and beatings that accompanied it, Mr. Chen helped many victims
of the campaign to bring lawsuits against the offending officials in the
In view of the unresponsiveness of the defendants, the slowness of court
procedures and the dim prospects of victory, Mr. Chen also went to Beijing,
as petitioners have done for centuries. There, unlike traditional
petitioners, Mr. Chen made use of the media in two ways in an effort to
bring the many violations of the nation�s family planning and criminal laws
to the attention of the central government.
On the one hand, he arranged for a courageous group of young legal scholars
from Beijing to visit Linyi to document the horrors taking place in order to
reveal them on the Internet. On the other, he contacted foreign journalists
in the hope that their dispatches would alert China�s leaders, often badly
informed by misleading reports from local subordinates, to the real situation.
Both of these efforts proved successful, too successful for Mr. Chen�s
well-being. The Internet report reached a large number of previously
uninformed Chinese readers, many of whom were under the illusion that
earlier rural birth-control abuses had ceased. The foreign media, led by a
front-page expos� in the Washington Post, also took up the cause.
At that point, Linyi officials struck back. On Aug. 11, without any legal
authority, a mob that has ranged from 30 to 200 city, county and township
officials and their henchmen surrounded Mr. Chen�s impoverished farmhouse
and has since confined him and his wife there around the clock. Their family
phone has been disconnected, their cellphones confiscated and Mr. Chen�s IBM
computer, specially adapted for use of the blind, was taken away for
�temporary safekeeping.� His small farmhouse was searched for eight hours.
No detention or house-arrest warrant, no search warrant, no legal fig leaf
has ever been given to the Chens.
Nor is anyone allowed to visit them�no journalist, no lawyer, no friend.
Villagers who have voiced their support for the Chens or tried to see them
have been detained by the police. Other would-be visitors have been beaten
by the police-organized mob, as have the Chens whenever they tried to meet
On one recent occasion, when Mr. Chen was beaten about the head so badly
that blood gushed from his temple, no doctor was permitted to come to his
home, nor was Mr. Chen allowed to seek medical treatment. Every vehicle
driver in the area has been warned not to offer transportation to the Chens.
A �friend� of the family, himself a sometime member of the surrounding mob,
told Mr. Chen�s widowed mother that he might be killed if he continued his
activities, and the Linyi police informed him that they were investigating
whether to charge him with revealing �intelligence� to foreigners, a crime
that often carries a 10-year sentence. Mr. Chen expects to be prosecuted
after U.S. President George W. Bush ends his forthcoming visit to China.
One moonless night at the end of August, Mr. Chen and his wife, together
with a nephew, tried to elude their captors. After a cornfield chase worthy
of a Hollywood thriller, the two men managed to escape, but Mrs. Chen was
caught and forced to return home. Travelling on his own, Mr. Chen eventually
got to Beijing, where he again contacted journalists and lawyers.
But on Sept. 6, over his loud protests and resistance, six men who offered
no explanation waylaid him outside his residence and forced him into an
unmarked car. Convinced that they were witnessing a kidnapping, bystanders
prevented the car from leaving and called Beijing police, who appeared
within minutes. At that point some of the �kidnappers� identified themselves
as officers of the Shandong Province Police Department and the car was
permitted to leave, despite their failure to produce a warrant for Mr.
Chen�s detention, as required by law.
After the 12-hour drive back to Yinan County, Mr. Chen was detained for over
a day and unsuccessfully pressured by the police, who mobilized not only his
father-in-law and one of his older brothers to �reason� with him, but also
the deputy mayor of Linyi City in charge of public security. Mr. Chen was
then returned to enforced isolation at his home, presumably to await either
the outcome of the alleged police investigation or the unlikely event of his
All efforts to break this curious stalemate have failed. Journalists and
lawyers who have recently attempted to see Mr. Chen have been stymied either
in Beijing or Linyi. For example, one recent morning, young lawyer Jiang
Tianyong bought a ticket for the night train to Linyi. But he received an
afternoon phone call from the Beijing Judicial Bureau, which regulates
lawyers, berating him for not reporting his plan and telling him, with no
apparent authority, not to make the trip.
Shortly after, Mr. Jiang and others enlisted the more senior and charismatic
lawyer Gao Zhisheng to make the trip. But before he could go, Mr. Gao, who
has challenged other illegal government actions, had his lawyer�s license
suspended for one year by the Beijing Judicial Bureau. And at least one of
the scholarly authors of the August Internet report on the Linyi scandal has
twice been warned that he will lose his teaching post if he pursues the case.
Hopes to free Mr. Chen were aroused when the central government�s Population
and Family Planning Agency, after belatedly conducting its own
investigation, confirmed that abuses had been committed in the Linyi
birth-control campaign and announced that some officials had been removed
and that there might be prosecution of some offenders. But nothing was said
about Mr. Chen.
Why doesn�t Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang put an end to this
fiasco, which has done so much to damage China�s reputation? Is it because
the central authorities do not want to encourage further resistance to
overzealous birth-control campaigns? Is it because even China�s feared mps
has limits in dealing with its local subordinates, at least in cases that do
not involve espionage, democratic groups, the Falun Gong or other high
priority areas? Is it because of a desire to crush those who reveal
unattractive truths to the Internet and foreign media?
Mr. Cohen is an NYU law professor specializing on China and adjunct fellow
for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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