The Search for Justice in China

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The text message on my cell phone came just as I was standing in my Shanghai apartment, surrounded by packing boxes and bubble wrap. Preparing to leave for Southeast Asia after more than six years in China, I was feeling nostalgic. China is not an easy place to be a journalist — our phones are often tapped, our sources sometimes harassed — but the economic developments that have transformed this country bring with them an infectious optimism. The lives of people in China, I reflected, really are getting better. The polite packer helping direct traffic in our apartment confided to my husband that he had actually helped move us into our apartment three years ago. Back then, he was a simple day laborer. Now he was a foreman. Many stories in China have a similar upward trajectory. If nothing else, I would miss China for the promise it holds.

Then, came the text message: "Chen Guangcheng has been sentenced to four years and three months' imprisonment." Chen is a legal activist whom I first met a year ago. A native of China's eastern Shandong province, he had come to Shanghai to publicize the plight of women who had been forced to undergo abortions or sterilizations as part of the nation's family-planning campaign. Although China has tried for more than two decades to lower its population through its "one-child policy," the coercive measures used in Shandong's Linyi region are now illegal. Chen's mission seemed reasonable at the time: If he could only alert higher-level officials to what rogue local bureaucrats were doing to try to meet low population targets, surely the higher-ups would curb Linyi's excesses?

A few days later, I saw Chen again in Beijing, where he was trying to meet with State Family Planning Commission officials to tell them the situation in Linyi. He gave us contact information for women who underwent the forced procedures, so my assistant and I decided to travel that very evening to Shandong to meet several victims, including one woman who had to abort her baby two days before her due date. (Night reporting is a popular tactic for foreign journalists in China. The dark affords us anonymity in places we are not supposed to visit under stringent Chinese Foreign Ministry regulations; more importantly, it protects our sources from possibly being thrown into jail for talking to us.)

As we wrapped up our meeting in Beijing that day last September, Chen had one last request: Would it be possible to see what I looked like? I said sure. Chen lifted his hands and felt my face. My nose, he commented, wasn't too big for a foreigner's. Chen had been blinded by a fever as a small child. His hands, as well as an unusually supportive family that read him law books out loud, were what allowed him to see the world.

Just a couple hours after our interview, Chen was detained by security officials who had traveled hundreds of miles from Linyi to Beijing. They hustled him into a van and drove him back home. Chen recalled later that he kept asking where they were going but was given no answer. This time, his hands could give him no guidance.

After depositing Chen at home, Linyi officials kept him under virtual house arrest for more than six months. Despite the harassment, which included several beatings, Chen remained hopeful. After all, a spokesperson at the State Family Planning Commission in Beijing had admitted that Linyi officials had broken the law. Chen waited in confinement for justice to be served. He kept in contact with foreign journalists through smuggled cell phones.

But in March, after trying to leave his home without official permission, Chen was again bundled into a police van. No one heard from him for months. Finally in mid-June, the local police announced that he was being held in prison on charges of damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic. High-profile lawyers in Beijing flocked to his defense, calling the charges trumped-up. Meanwhile, the international profile of a blind man from rural China was steadily growing. TIME had named Chen to its annual list of 100 influential people. The U.S. State Department called for his release. Chen's supporters hoped the global attention would help free him.

But when a top Beijing lawyer tried to represent Chen in a Linyi court on Aug. 18, he was promptly tossed into jail himself. I began to wonder whether the international attention was doing more harm than good. In previous years, a plea from the U.S. State Department could help get a Chinese political prisoner released, typically as a goodwill gesture before important international summits. But in recent months, foreign pressure appears to have done little. On Friday, for instance, a Chinese researcher for The New York Times, who had been languishing in jail for nearly two years, was sentenced to three years' imprisonment on questionable fraud charges, despite intense global condemnation of the allegations. Other attempts to coax China into improving its human-rights record have met with little success. After all, what leverage does the international community now hold? China is the world's factory. It holds bountiful foreign-currency reserves. It will host the Olympics in 2008. The balance has shifted from China feeling like it needs the world to the world needing China.

All of which may have contributed to the speedy course of injustice in Linyi. With his own legal counsel in jail, Chen was represented by two court-appointed lawyers. The trial lasted just two hours. Thursday's announcement of a four-year-and-three-month sentence surprised even those who expected little more than a sham trial; lawyers here agree that similar charges rarely elicit a jail sentence of more than a year. "Chen's case typifies how some local officials can take the law as a personal tool for revenge," says Teng Biao, a university lecturer who has been part of Chen's legal defense team. "This reflects the worrisome situation in a country that is supposed to be governed by rule of law."

Chen's wife, Yuan Weijing, who has been under house arrest herself for months, was equally stunned by the harsh sentence. Each day, she says, her three-year-old son tells her he doesn't want to start supper until his father comes home. "Today," she told TIME by cell phone, "I had to tell my child that his father won't be joining him for dinner for a long time."

I must admit, I was worried how Yuan would react to a phone call from TIME. I wondered if she would blame the international media for publicizing the forcible family-planning campaign, which is perhaps what prompted Linyi officials to take out their anger on her husband. That Chen had been detained just hours after talking to me made me even more queasy. But Yuan brightened when she heard it was TIME on the line. She knew about the TIME 100, of course. And she had told another one of Chen's lawyers that she never imagined that she would be married to someone whose name was listed among such notables as Condoleezza Rice, Pope Benedict XVI and China's Premier Wen Jiabao. "I am proud of my husband," she said Thursday, "and I want the outside world to know what is truly happening."

As I pack up my final boxes for my move from Shanghai, I will certainly remember the disgust I felt as I read the text message informing me of Chen's sentencing. He will probably be released around the time I finish my next assignment for TIME in Southeast Asia. But I will also remember Yuan's conviction that the outside world must know what is going on in Linyi so it can help change things for the better. Hers is a faith based on a system that has not yet taken root in her homeland — one in which justice would consistently prevail and heroes like her husband would be honored. But if Yuan can have hope in China's future, then I should, too. I can't pack that sense of optimism in a box, but it is something about China that I will treasure long after I leave.