Cause for hope in tale of jailed Chinese activist

September 01, 2006|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA -- A year ago, on a trip to China, I wrote about a blind legal activist who was challenging the use of forced abortions and sterilizations in his province. Chen Guangcheng had the audacity to try to organize a class-action lawsuit by peasants against local officials, arguing that Chinese law banned such population-control methods. When I left Beijing in September, Mr. Chen had been beaten and put under house arrest.

Last week, he was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of "organizing a mob" to disturb traffic and "willfully damaging property." His lawyers were not allowed to enter the court.

Yet Mr. Chen's story is a hopeful event in a summer full of awful news about Middle East mayhem and terrorist plots. It holds important lessons about how democratic changes can emerge in authoritarian states.

Since China opened to the world in the 1980s, communist officials have bet they could reform their economy while keeping a tight lid on the political system. But China's phenomenal economic growth, which has lifted hundreds of millions into the middle class, has also created a huge gap between rich and poor and fueled government corruption. Helped by access to the Internet, more and more ordinary Chinese have become aware that they have legal rights to challenge corrupt officials.

"People are crying for fairness," Wang Xixin, the associate dean of Beijing University Law School, told me last year.

A small number of Chinese public-interest lawyers are pressing the courts to enforce national laws ignored by local officials - on issues such as birth control, environmental abuse or seizure of private property. Some midlevel officials in Beijing are said to view the growth of the rule of law as healthy, and a few public-interest law cases have resulted in positive verdicts.

But the whole concept of public-interest law clearly rattles senior party officials. Mr. Chen's case has focused international attention on government efforts to crack down on advocates trying to help Chinese gain their legal rights.

Given that Mr. Chen has been jailed, why do I say his story is hopeful? Because his case reveals the genuine urge at the Chinese grass roots for more-responsive political leaders.

Mr. Chen exemplifies the new, more courageous Chinese citizen willing to fight for those rights - not by violence but by legal methods.

The government should consider Mr. Chen a national hero. Having lost his sight as a child, he still audited law classes and used his knowledge to help his fellow villagers. He gathered testimony from thousands of residents - including women forced to have abortions just before their babies were due - and brought this information to China's State Planning Commission, which had to admit that local officials in Shandong province had violated Chinese law.

Mr. Chen's work was helping China's leaders, although they won't admit it. Last year, according to China's Public Security Bureau, there were 74,000 protests and riots nationwide. Many of these protests no doubt were against corrupt local officials. Mr. Chen's work was an effort to force such officials to obey the law. If he had succeeded, the people of his village would have felt more of a stake in their system.

No one can impose democracy on China. But if its own people - with increasing knowledge of the outside world - keep pressing for change, China's political and judicial institutions will have to evolve, or the level of unrest will keep growing.

The urge for change must come from within, helped by contact with the Internet (where Chinese can read foreign press reports about cases such as Mr. Chen's, which Chinese media are banned from covering). Chinese activists can also be aided by support from international nongovernmental organizations, which can help them learn more about legal systems elsewhere.

Yet the key to change is the courage and dynamism shown by patriots such as Mr. Chen. Chinese historians may look back at this blind activist and acknowledge that he saw the future more clearly than his jailers.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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