Letter from Beijing: A Legal Activist Goes on Trial

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Some days, China is the kind of place that can make an optimist out of almost anyone; other days, it does just the opposite.

The day I first learned of Chen Guangcheng was one of the first kind. Chen had beaten the odds. He'd grown up blind in a remote village in a country where people with disabilities aren't allowed to attend college. That meant three strikes against his ever amounting to much: China may be brimming with opportunity, but not for handicapped, uneducated peasants. The odds didn't deter Chen. He educated himself in the law by having relatives read to him, and then used his expertise to help others like him. He became a "barefoot lawyer," offering counsel to peasants with disabilities despite his lack of conventional credentials. His work won him admiration in his hometown, support from established lawyers and academics in Beijing, and even a trip to Washington, D.C., courtesy of the U.S. State Department.

Friday was the second kind of day. At 2:30 p.m. in Shandong's Yinan county, Chen, 34, went on trial on trumped-up charges of illegal assembly and intent to damage public property — charges that seem designed as retaliation by officials whose misdeeds he had exposed. Dozens of supporters who had come to stand by him had to spend the afternoon gathered outside the courthouse. Barring their entry were some 200 uniformed police. Also absent from the courtroom were Chen's defense lawyers, three of whom had spent the previous evening confined to a local police station and one of whom would remain there until after Chen's two-hour trial ended with no plea and no verdict.

Friday was one of many such days Chen has had over the past year. Last September, he showed up in Beijing to publicize the plight of his latest clients: victims of a brutal campaign of late-term abortions and forced sterilizations carried out by local officials in clear violation of Chinese laws. National family-planning officials would eventually acknowledge that rules had been violated. But being in the right offered Chen no protection. Just hours after he met with my colleague Hannah Beech, security officials from his hometown arrived to shut him up. They forced him into a van and bundled him back to his home, where they confiscated his computer, began to intimidate and harass his family members and kept him under informal — and illegal — house arrest.

By then, Chen had become an inspiration to a group of idealistic Chinese lawyers — themselves optimists about the power of law to transform Chinese society. These lawyers became legal activists for the legal activist. They publicized his case through essays circulated on the Internet. They filed complaints about his unlawful detention with officials at various levels of government. They kept the foreign media informed. They also tried, on a fairly regular basis, to meet with their client. They often failed — on at least one occasion, badly. In October when three of the lawyers — Xu Zhiyong, Li Subin and Li Fangping — tried to visit Chen's house, a group of unidentified men physically prevented Chen from coming outside, and punched him in the mouth. Later in the day, a similar gang surrounded his lawyers, kicked them and punched them, and then dragged them to a local police station where they were held overnight (without charges or any semblance of due process) before being ordered out of town.

Xu, in particular, has made a career out of the kind of optimism that accompanies a strong sense of justice. Just after earning his Ph.D. at Beijing Daxue Law School, in 2003 he successfully petitioned Beijing to end a system of detention that allowed police to lock people up just for traveling outside their registered hometowns. The following year, he won a seat in his district government in Beijing, in one of the few openly contested elections in the country. In addition to teaching constitutional law, he has been a visiting scholar at Yale, and a defender of peasants on death row. Last year, Xu spent time living in a shantytown on the outskirts of Beijing, conducting first-hand research on its residents, people for whom justice has been so elusive they've come to the capital to plead for help from the senior leadership. Despite having seen so much of his country's dark side, every time I've met Xu he's been remarkably upbeat about China's future. "I'm an optimist," he said earlier this year. "We take on these cases and step by step, maybe we make a little progress."

Not on Friday.

While Xu was in detention — he'd been taken into police custody the night before after men who had been following him around in a car accused him of stealing a wallet, according to his friend and fellow lawyer, Teng Biao — Chen sat through a trial on charges that could earn him five years in jail. According to another of his lawyers, who had spoken to Chen's brother, Chen vomited during the trial. It was, wrote longtime China law scholar Jerome Cohen, in an e-mail sent to reporters, an "understandable and appropriate" response to "the nauseating nature of the unfair sanctions that have been imposed on him and his family for over a year."

Among Beijing's greatest achievements in recent years has been its ability to convince the Chinese people and the rest of the world, that life in China is getting better each day. But as Chen sat through his trial, I — and some of China's brightest optimists — had trouble feeling convinced.