Last week Chen Guangcheng entered a US embassy for the protection that the Chinese gov’t had failed to provide the innocent man. According to Chen’s friends, it was a step that Chen did not want to take. Today we will be looking at three lessons Chen’s case teaches us about China’s legal system.
Chen Guangcheng would never call himself a dissident; he might hesitate to even describe himself as an activist. The incredible thing that we should keep in mind as representatives from the US and China decide Chen’s fate, is that he is a man who simply thought that the laws on paper should be enforced. Chen’s initial fame came from his efforts to protect the rights of the disabled and he fell afoul of the system when he sought to stop forced abortions which were beyond what the one-child policy called for (Yaxue’s profile of Chen back in November covered this in-depth). His case, even more so than Bo Xilai’s, demonstrates that China absolutely is not a country ruled by law.
When my wife mentioned this case to a few of her students, they were baffled that such a case could even exist. Surely, they thought, this was another instance of local governments acting out and the Central gov’t simply is unaware of the abuse. However as we have discussed before, the Central gov’t has been aware of Chen’s illegal detention for at least half a year. Also, Ge Xun’s extra-legal detention in February showed that silencing the story of Chen Guangcheng was a national priority that involved the upper levels of government. Chen’s escape illuminates the fact that the supposedly benevolent Central Gov’t was unwilling to protect the rights of the individual when it did not benefit the Party line. I know that this is in no way surprising to most of my readers, but to many of my Chinese friends who are not as involved in politics, it will be shocking.
Chen’s case highlights another interesting aspect that we should bear in mind, that Chen’s detention was only made possible by the involvement of hundreds of villagers turned thugs. I don’t believe these are bad people, I think they are poor and desperate people who saw an opportunity to escape poverty. In China, censorship, black-jails, and forced demolitions all rely on the participation of individuals in despicable acts. As China raises the standards of living I believe it will become more difficult to attract the number of people necessary to impose such plans (or at the very least, cost prohibitive).
Finally, it should be noted that Chen’s case is in no way a victory.
A victory would require some kind of reform or future promise offered to those who are trying simply to enjoy the protections enshrined in the laws of the People’s Republic of China. A victory would have been the Central Gov’t stepping in and stopping the abuses in Linyi instead of supporting them by cracking down on activists in other provinces. A victory would have been an acknowledgement of Chen’s case and a public denunciation of the practice (similar to what happened in Wukan). A victory would have been the removal of those who imprisoned Chen (they continue to enjoy the privileges of Party rank). There has been no victory yet, and it is doubtful there will be one as a result of Chen’s case.
After 5+ years of waiting, I think it is safe to say that Chen is a patient man, and yet he knew that at this point, escape was his only option for freedom. That Chinese law offered him no protection. This must have been a heart rending decision for a man who lost so much for his dedication to upholding the law. China is no closer to securing the rights of its people, which is what Chen was fighting for in 2006 when he was thrown in prison under false accusations (the China Daily account from that time is preposterous). Chen’s escape simply means that one less person is suffering from extra-legal detention, but does nothing to prevent it happening to others. I hope now that Chen has escaped his home turned prison, those who worked for his freedom will now take up his original cause.