A Chinese Activist Lost in the System

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Blind activist Chen Guangcheng, center, in an undated photo.

As China prepares to celebrate the Lunar New Year this weekend, there is much hyperbole about the country's gleaming new skyscrapers, swelling middle class, dazzling preparations for the Olympics and so forth. But it is always worth getting a reality check on what underlies that rosy picture, the fact that China remains a highly repressive authoritarian state. I met recently in a small Beijing cafe with social activist Teng Biao and public-interest lawyer Li Heping, two unassuming gentlemen who are painfully well aware of the lengths the Chinese system will go to preserve itself.

Li is one of the lawyers who represented blind activist Chen Guangcheng in his trial last year on what would under other circumstances be considered the bizarre charges of damaging property and attempting to organize a crowd to obstruct traffic. In fact, Chen's crime seems to have been that he embarrassed local officials in his home province of Shandong.

As my colleague Hannah Beech wrote when Chen's sentence of four years and three months was announced last September, Chen is a "self-schooled legal activist [who] came 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. China has tried for more than two decades to lower its population through its 'one-child' policy, but the coercive measures used in Shandong's Linyi region are now illegal. By publicizing abuses committed by local bureaucrats, Chen believed he could persuade higher-level officials to step in and stop them." Chen was at least partly successful: apparently due to his efforts, the state family planning commission issued a statement calling some of the activities by local officials irregular and promising to discipline those involved. (Further reality check: the commission is relatively toothless and not much seems to have happened since that statement.)

Back in Linyi, Chen's activities were less well received. Hours after meeting Hannah in the Chinese capital in the fall of 2005, Chen was detained by security officials from his hometown, who had driven all the way to Beijing to nab him. For the next six months, he was kept under virtual house arrest. Then, after trying to leave his village without official permission last March, Chen was arrested again. In June, the charges against him were announced and his conviction followed. (Chen's wife Yuan Weijing, Li says, faced similar charges and is now under house arrest in their home village, caring for their son.)

His lawyers say Chen's final formal appeal was turned down in December and since then they have had less and less opportunity to visit him, as there are no legal avenues left to pursue. Li told me that he last saw Chen on Jan. 15. He had lost weight, was plagued by serious stomach problems and was being denied privileges given to other prisoners such as being able to buy food items such as instant noodles. "It is very hard for him," Li said with a sigh. "Can you imagine what it's like to be in prison and be blind? He has no idea where to go or even who is hitting him if he gets hit." Despite repeated requests, Chen's family have not been able to visit him since his last appeal was refused in December.

Chen's only recourse now is China's Byzantine petitioning system, a holdover from imperial days that exists in parallel with the legal system. As Li notes, it is rare for a petition even to be accepted by the relevant office, much less be acted on. And in many cases, orders issued in Beijing or a provincial capital as a result of a successful petition are ignored by lower authorities. (Tiangao, huangdi yuan, the Chinese say: "Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away." Beijing has always had enormous trouble enforcing its will in the far-flung corners of China, where the local bosses pretty much do what they want). Still, Li said that so far Chen's spirits are holding up well. "He is very strong," said Teng. "He still firmly believes in continuing to fight against the conviction for as long as it takes."

Both Li and Teng are pretty formidable, too, and remain dedicated to their public interest vocations despite knowing full well what the consequences can be. Last December, Li and three other lawyers took a long distance bus from Beijing to visit Chen. The bus was stopped in mid-journey and a group of seven or eight unidentified men, some of them wielding iron bars, climbed on board and attacked the lawyers. "I keep a positive attitude," Li said, but inevitably such experiences "shake my belief in the legal system of this country." Then Li showed me a picture someone had taken of him after the beating. His entire head and faced were covered in blood. I asked if I could have a copy, but he declined. "It would be too sad," for people to see the picture, he said. "I am working to promote the law but the law cannot even protect me. And I cannot protect my clients."