Access to Justice in Shandong’s Countryside: A barefoot lawyer’s struggleSep 13th, 2010 | By USAsialawNYU | Category: Jerome A. Cohen's Blog, Publications Printable format
An edited version of this article appeared in the South China Morning Post on September 14, 2010 under the title “Breaking Point?”. It also appeared in Chinese on September 16 in the China Times. Illustration from South China Morning Post. （繁体中文）(简体中文)
How much physical and mental persecution can Chinese law reformers, political activists and religious practitioners endure? How much suffering is the Chinese government willing to inflict upon them in the name of stability and harmony, shaming itself before a world it wants to seduce through “soft power”? Why do “rights lawyers” like Gao Zhisheng and Zheng Enchong, intellectuals like Liu Xiaobo and Hu Jia and millions of unknown adherents to “house churches” and the Falun Gong risk martyrdom to resist a regime that has fostered remarkable economic development and lifted several hundred million people out of poverty?Last week’s release from prison of the blind “barefoot lawyer” Chen Guangcheng raises such questions again, especially since the world knows, even if the Chinese people do not, that the 38 year-old Chen, after completing his 51-month sentence, has merely been transferred from one type of detention to another. His home — a humble farmhouse in Dongshigu village, a literally dirt-poor area of Shandong Province — is not his castle, but his prison.
This comes as no surprise to Chen. For seven months before police detained him in March 2006, his home had been under illegal around-the-clock siege by dozens of police and their henchmen. Their job was not only to prevent Chen and his courageous wife, Yuan Weijing, from leaving the village but also to prevent lawyers, journalists and admirers of the already famous Chen from entering. When he once managed to escape to Beijing, they brought him back by force and thrashed lawyers who followed. They also restricted electronic communications and deprived him of a computer adapted for use of the blind. This police harassment continued against his wife for most of the period Chen was imprisoned, and now it has been strengthened through stationing additional personnel and surveillance cameras around their house and village roads.
How long will this lawless nightmare last? The local government has been determined to break the will of this idealistic couple. It denied Chen’s family the regular monthly prison visits authorized by law. Soon after detention he was badly beaten. When in 2007 Chen was awarded Asia’s prestigious Magsaysay Prize for emergent leadership, Ms. Yuan was not permitted to accept it for him. Beginning 2008, when he first suffered the chronic diarrhea that has left him emaciated and ill, the government denied him adequate treatment and medical parole, raising suspicions that it might be seeking to permanently incapacitate him. Last year Ms. Yuan’s minders told her that they had already spent 15 million renminbi on restricting the family and had set aside 50 million more, enormous sums for an impoverished village. Recently, they tightened the screws of intimidation by refusing to enroll Chen’s daughter in kindergarten because her father’s problem had “not yet been resolved”.
What had Chen done to deserve all this? After two farcical “trials”, this son of poor peasants was convicted on trumped up charges of organizing a crowd to block traffic and damaging public property. His real offense, however, was to attempt to use the legal system to right some of the wrongs of rural government. After training, like many other blind Chinese, to be a massage therapist, Chen decided to devote himself instead to stopping the official discrimination against the disabled that he experienced and that attracted him to law. Yet he received no help from any of the four lawyers in Yinan County(population 920,000). They needed good relations with local government and saw no money in such cases. Even the Yinan office of the China Disabled Persons’ Federation refused to help him enforce the country’s anti-discrimination law, since that office depended on local government.So Chen decided to take advantage of the Chinese legal system’s openness to non-professional participation in litigation and soon became well-known for helping the helpless gain access to the courts. He tried to hold local officials accountable for various violations of national tax, anti-discrimination and criminal laws. Initially successful, Chen gradually met resistance from judges caught between national law and local officials on whom they too were dependent for funding, promotions, job security and other matters. An eight-page 2002 cover story in Newsweek International led to a U.S.State Department tour of American legal institutions in spring 2003. That enabled me to befriend this young, charismatic figure, but it also fed the fires of official resentment against him at home.
In September 2004, while teaching at Tsinghua University, I invited Chen to Beijing to meet several legal educators in an effort to enlist support for his desire to train the hundreds of “barefoot lawyers” he thought necessary to provide legal services in Yinan County alone. We also bought him surprisingly good handbooks instructing laymen how to navigate the complexities of Chinese laws and judicial procedures.
The next month, because Chen insisted that no one could understand the legal needs of China’s vast countryside without visiting villages like his, my wife and I spent several days in Dongshigu. We met his neighbors, interviewed his “clients” — a sad but hopeful group of persons with various disabilities — and made plans for training “barefoot lawyers”. I was impressed by Chen’s evident popularity with both clients and other villagers, many of whom were later prevented from testifying at his trials. I was also impressed by the well-thumbed, heavily-underlined pages of the handbooks we had acquired only weeks earlier. They had been read to him by his wife and brother, who had both become involved in his amateur legal aid operation.
Unfortunately, our plans were overtaken by a vicious provincial campaign to fulfill centrally-allocated birth control targets. Thousands of Shandong women who sought to elude forced abortion and sterilization, together with their families, were subjected to brutal abuses by local officials. Many victims asked Chen for help, and he became increasingly depressed by his inability to persuade either officials or judges to halt the violations of the country’s family planning and criminal justice laws.
Professor Jerome A. Cohen is co-director of NYU School of Law’s US-Asia Law Institute and adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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