Blind Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who is studying at NYU law school under asylum in the US, gave a talk on February 6, 2013, at the New School in New York City on “The Future of the Rule of Law and Human Rights in China.”
CCS had advocated on behalf of granting asylum to Chen in 2012, when he fled from house arrest and mistreatment by Chinese authorities to the US Embassy in Beijing. Chen had incurred the wrath of local authorities in Shandong province of by winning cases on behalf of local people who resisted illegal actions, including forced abortion, unlawful treatment of disabled persons, and by bringing a landmark class action against misappropriation of land for purposes of development.
In 2007, Chen received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for integrity and courage. His dramatic night-time escape on foot will be the subject of his forthcoming book.
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Inna Abramova, a graduate student in chemistry at Brooklyn College and a CCS intern, and Sophie Cook, Executive Director, heard Chen’s February 6 talk, which was under the auspices of the Center for Public Scholarship’s “University in Exile” series. We include our summary below.
The Future of the Rule of Law and Human Rights in China
The New School, a center of intellectual and artistic freedom and tolerance that became a host to many endangered scholars, presented the fourth in the series “University of Exile,” introducing the activist lawyer Chen Guancheng, currently a visiting scholar at NYU School of Law. The event was dedicated to the human rights, social justice and the rule of law in China.
The conversation took place between Chen Guangcheng, Dr. Jerome Cohen, an expert on China and Chinese Law who was instrumental in negotiating for Chen Guangcheng’s release, and Dr. Ira Belkin, Executive Director of the US-Asia Law Center, who acted as interpreter.
One of the crucial questions confronting the new Chinese administration, Chen said, is the relationship between the Communist Party and Chinese legal institutions and whether there is a prospect of a revived interest in separating the Party from the courts. Before Tiananmen Square, the Communist Party and the courts were separate. This is no longer the case, he said.
Chen Guangcheng believes that there is a need to build a new society in China, characterized by fairness, social justice and openness, which calls for constitutional government, democracy and free speech and for the government to live up to its promises and Chinese laws. He identifies the problem facing the Chinese society as disobedience of the Chinese laws by Communist Party officials. “If the leaders acted appropriately, then everyone under the leadership wouldn’t dare to act inappropriately.”
Chen Guangcheng related the current case of his nephew, Chen Kegui, who was sentenced to 3 years and 3 months and is thought by many as an act of revenge for Chen’s escape and as a continuation of his own case. The case arose out of a break-in to Chen’s brother’s house by thugs Chen believes were hired by local authorities and Chen Kegui’s attempt to protect their home. Chen listed violations of Chinese law by local officials with respect to the trial of his nephew, including the right to self-defense, the right to lawyers, prosecution of the “intruders”, and the right to appeal. In talking about the trial, which wasn’t open to the public, Chen used a Chinese expression “If you’ve done nothing wrong, why don’t you let other people see it”. He also mentioned that part of the agreement between China and the US concerning his asylum had included a promise by the Chinese government to investigate the unfair trial of Chen himself – a promise that has not been fulfilled.
Earlier in his career, Dr. Cohen explained, Chen had been popular with the Chinese government, who sent him to the US in 2003. However, Chen became too effective in challenging local authorities. For example, he used litigation to enforce the rights of disabled persons under Chinese law to be exempt from taxes and the duty to work. Similarly, Chen challenged the power of local Communist Party secretaries to force illegal abortions and sterilizations. A survey in one Chinese province, Chen said, uncovered 130,000 unlawful abortions in just one city. If the pregnant woman couldn’t be found, the authorities detained a family member to coerce the abortion, he said. (In another context, Chen has said that the one-child family policy has probably become obsolete in contemporary China.) His work with women and disabled, Chen said, was human rights work rather than dissidence. “If the local Party secretary is not involved, you’re OK. If he is, you lose.”
Lack of transparency is a key issue in China. Under Article 73, Chen said, the Government can still send individuals to “re-education” camps without trial for up to six months. Recently, due to public pressure, families pf those interned have to be notified but the cases are still “out of public view.”
One of the issues raised during the discussion was trying to characterize Chen Guangcheng. Although he never advocated overthrowing the government, he believes that if the Chinese Communist party can’t satisfy the people’s demands for universal values and fair society, it should step aside. In this way, he is getting closer to being a dissident, because of frustration and lack of response from the government. This issue was also encompassed by questions from the audience about the dilemma that Chen faces on the personal (endangering his family and relatives) and public fronts (open criticism of the Chinese government versus silent diplomacy in building constructive conversation).
Chen Guangcheng seems motivated to continue working for human rights no matter where he is. In his message to the Chinese American students in the audience, he encouraged promoting fairness and justice in Chinese society, saying that the future is in their hands.
- Escaped Activist’s Family Faces Threats in China (abcnews.go.com)
- China’s new leaders will not bring change, says blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng (telegraph.co.uk)