Archive for January 9th, 2012

Monday, January 9, 2012

Jerome Cohen (2010) on Chen Guangcheng: What is Power?

The Democracy Party of China (中国民主党) promotes Chen Guangcheng‘s (陈光诚) nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. Activities to endorse Chen are scheduled to start on Tuesday, reports the BBC‘s Chinese website. Chen, a blind Chinese civil-rights activist, was tried in 2006, on charges of destruction of property and assembling a crowd to disrupt traffic, The Washington Post described the case at the time as one where the Communist Party’s final decision about how Chen’s future had been hanging in the balance, before local authorities, which had been the aim of Chen’s criticism,

fought back, placing Chen under house arrest and launching an aggressive campaign to damage his reputation and deny his allegations. Party sources said Linyi officials distributed a report in Beijing that portrayed Chen as a tool of “foreign anti-China forces,” accused him of violating the one-child policy and made much of the fact that he had received overseas funding for his work as an activist on behalf of the disabled.


For months, the party appeared torn about how to proceed, but the decision to prosecute Chen suggests that the Linyi officials have outmaneuvered others in the government who wanted to use the case to send a strong signal to local officials that forced sterilization and abortion would not be tolerated.

Forced sterilization and abortion belonged to the human rights violations of which Chen took issue. According to Jerome Cohen*),

then he decided that he would try to help people, using the law, which he learned through self-study. I’ve been told that no blind people have ever graduated from a Chinese law school. He had hope to study law, and I had made some arrangement because we were friends, for him to study law at a night law school in Shanghai, but before that could happen, he was first put under informal, unauthorized, illegal house arrest, and when that didn’t cause him and his wife to cease their human rights public-interest activities, he was then criminally detained, arrested, prosecuted, convicted of obstructing justice, and sentenced to four years and three months in prison after two rounds of trials.
The trials were a farce. Witnesses weren’t permitted to appear, lawyers were inhibited or not permitted to appear – it was a said commentary on justice.

Chen we call a barefoot lawyer, because he studied law on his own. I bought him a hundred-dollars’ worth of law books, at the New China Bookstore in Beijing, and he made good use of them. Very nice texts on administrative law, tax law, civil procedure, administrative law, particularly. He became quite effective, and the local courts were embarrassed by him. He was constantly asking them to take action against the local officials – the officials who appoint the judges, and pay their expenses or salaries – it was a built-in conflict of interest. And finally they stopped – the judges stopped – cooperating with him, and he got very frustrated, especially when the local police and population-planning authorities took very severe measures against the families of young women. Because they wanted the women to have abortions, or to become sterilized so that they couldn’t have children. And many of the women fled their homes so that they wouldn’t be there to suffer these forced procedures, and that led the authorities to start locking up their families.

Whole families – grandparents, children, spouses – were all locked up, in various informal buildings. Some of them were beaten, a few were killed, and this happened by the thousand. This was not a small enterprise. Throughout the province, where very strict measures were taken by the provincial and local authorities, to stop these women from having more children, because otherwise, the officials could not fulfill their birth-control quotas and limit the number of births for the year, and the officials would then suffer punishment themselves, and their careers would be stunted.


According to Cohen’s account, Chen, who didn’t get a hearing at the courts anymore, worked with the media instead, talking to foreign correspondents with Cohen’s help.

That led to a loss of temper on the part of the local officials, and they then locked him up.

For the “house arrest” that followed Chen’s release from prison, there was no legal authorization we know of for this. The video of half an hour may be an edited copy, and it is sort of a Chen biography, told by a friend.

Certainly no-one could be more powerless than Chen and his wife, locked up as they are, forever. And yet, he is powerful, and that’s what the government fears. Before I even met him, the Asian edition of Newsweek had run an eight-page story about him, with photographs showing that he was transforming rural life by enabling poor people who couldn’t find lawyers to represent them to go to court, assert their rights. This was an exciting development in China that has too few lawyers, especially in poor, rural areas.


What is power? The Chinese government would like to have soft power, as well as hard power. The world recognizes China’s growing military might, its tremendous economic development and influence, but China wants to be known for the quality of its civilization. That’s why they resurrected Confucius and engaged in a lot of cultural exchange and things, and that’s all good. But real soft power comes from people recognizing that you run a civilized government, and that you treat your own people better than he’s being treated.


He wanted to organize hundreds of barefoot lawyers, and have me and others help train them. So he would make a lot of difficulty, because in the Chinese countryside, often when people who don’t know much about law get their hands on some legal learning, then they begin to assert their rights, because they learn that sometimes, the local officials have taken advantage of them, and they are not honest with them, and they are denying them the legal treatment that the central government’s laws call for.

So learning is dangerous. It’s dangerous for the officials if they allow their people to learn, and it’s dangerous for those to seek to learn and to assert the rights based on that learning.

The whole video is worth to be watched and listened to from the beginning to the end. Cohen’s repeated question: “what can they do with him?”

From dangwai – from outer dangwai, in fact, there seem to be Chinese people with some suggestions.



*) The video was uploaded by New York University School of Law, in November 2010



» Improving Agricultural Production, Dec 23, 2011
» Sincere Thanks, February 15, 2011
» Taiwan’s Unbelievable Justice, Sept 12, 2009


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