Crusader in a legal wilderness |
by Teng Biao
South China Morning Post
July 31, 2006
This year Time magazine named activist Chen Guangcheng one of the world's 100 most influential people. Chen is a lawyer who has exposed forced abortion and other abuses in China's family-planning policy - and who also happens to be blind. But if you enter his name on an internet search engine in mainland China, you get nothing. Where is he?
Right now, he sits in a detention centre in his home province of Shandong , where his class-action lawsuits on behalf of victims of brutal family-planning enforcement have enraged local leaders. In March, after half a year of house arrest, Chen was detained on spurious charges of "intentional destruction of property" and "gathering a crowd to block traffic". Soon he will enter a court in which the judge is not truly free to be a judge.
The methods that mainland officials have used to enforce family-planning quotas have raised concerns among human rights groups around the world. Chen and his supporters have shown that these methods have included not only forced abortion and forced sterilisation, but also arbitrary detention, beatings and confiscation of property.
All these measures are expressly forbidden by law, but are widespread, nonetheless. Officials on the mainland are not promoted if residents in their jurisdictions exceed family-planning quotas. Last year, in Chen's home county of Linyi , the family-planning campaign led to forced abortion, forced sterilisation, detention and torture of as many as 500,000 people. Some torture resulted in death.
The Communist Party secretary there, a man named Li Qun, was once an intern in the mayor's office in New Haven, Connecticut. He must have known something about the principles of modern government at the time he took up his post in Shandong. But the pressures of China's political system turned him into an "assassin" of human rights. If Linyi failed its population quotas, his career would go nowhere.
Choosing between loss of face before superiors and the need to squash Chen, Shandong officials have chosen the latter. In August last year, Chen and his wife - who was a nursing mother at the time - were illegally put under house arrest. It was the only way local officials could imagine blocking his efforts to expose further abuse. Lawyers who tried to help him were met with beatings and death threats from hired thugs.
China's leaders have written "human rights" into their constitution, and the country has joined some international human rights conventions. These steps seem aimed at winning public legitimacy for the government, now that the socialist ideology has collapsed in all but name. In practice, though, as Chen's work shows, there will be little hope for human rights on the mainland without multi-party competition, an independent judiciary and a free press.
The good news is that mainlanders' thirst for the rule of law and human rights continues to thrive despite the harsh political environment. Increasing numbers of villagers are taking their rights seriously and using the law as a weapon.
More and more people - lawyers, intellectuals and ordinary citizens - are intervening in cases such as Chen's, while more and more "rights defenders" have emerged at the grass-roots level. And the government itself is hardly ironclad: many officials would prefer to follow the rule of law, if the system made it possible.
Sooner or later, national rulers will need to learn that catchwords like "human rights", "rule of law" and "a harmonious society" will not lead to legitimate government until concrete safeguards are in place.
Chen's trial, initially scheduled for July 20, has been postponed. He remains in detention, innocent - but not yet proven so.
Teng Biao is a lecturer at the University of Politics and Law in Beijing.