China's jailed champions

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 5:32pm

We will soon meet a new generation of Chinese heroes - the Olympic competitors whose gold medals and performance records will become the pride of their motherland. Yet, as the media trumpets their triumphs, the world should also recognise a group of more significant Chinese heroes - the human rights activists whose persecution, prosecution and punishment have become the shame of the motherland.

Like Olympians, many activists reside in state-supported living quarters. But theirs are police detention cells and labour camps that are very different from the comforts afforded China's finest athletes. No famous company pays them to sponsor its brand, and their families receive no 'iron rice bowl' from the state. Instead, they are treated as criminals by association. Nor are they glamorised in the Chinese press, which is prohibited from reporting their mistreatment.

Only the foreign media is free to focus on the repression of Chinese 'rights defenders'. Despite the valiant efforts of internet dissidents, few of their cases break through China's secrecy barriers, and those that do attract foreign interest are soon forgotten. That is certainly the sad fate of even Chen Guangcheng , the blind 'barefoot lawyer' who, before his arrest in March 2006, had become the best-known symbol of increasingly widespread efforts by rural Chinese to challenge arbitrary official actions in local courts.

As early as 2002, Chen had been featured in an eight-page Newsweek International cover story about farmers who, although uneducated in law and unable to enlist the assistance of local lawyers, were beginning to seek justice for themselves and their neighbours through lawsuits brought by themselves. This publicity soon led to a US State Department travel grant under a programme for future foreign leaders that allowed Chen and his wife to spend a month meeting American legal specialists. I will always be grateful for the opportunity that gave me to befriend this remarkable couple. I remember thinking of Chen: 'He could be China's Gandhi.'

In September 2003, while teaching at Tsinghua University, I invited the Chens to Beijing. The highlight was an hour in the law section of the Xinhua bookstore, where we bought a number of 'how to do it' books for would-be amateur litigators.

The next month, he invited my wife and I for a three-day visit to his family's farmhouse in Yinan County, a poor and remote area of Linyi city in Shandong province . We met a broad range of his 'clients'; each had a story of some harshly discriminatory government action that Chen had already remedied or was trying to remedy. We also discussed the need to train a large number of 'barefoot lawyers' for a county whose few formally qualified lawyers were too intimidated to sue officials.

When the normally vibrant Chen next came to Beijing, in June 2005, he looked thin, tired and tense. His wife said that he was distraught over his inability to help the many thousands of people in his area whom local officials had illegally detained and abused in order to force women in their families to submit to abortions and sterilisations. Linyi's courts had refused to hear the cases.

We agreed that only two channels for possible redress remained available. One was the internet, the other, the foreign press. Chen was well aware of the dangers of each course but decided to pursue both, since he felt desperate to inform the leadership about Linyi's lawlessness.

Local authorities responded to the resulting publicity by cracking down on Chen and his family. Officials and thugs surrounded his house and cut off all personal and electronic communication.

To make certain that the highest authorities were aware of Linyi's lawlessness, in the November 2005 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review, I published an appeal to the then minister of public security and Politburo member, Zhou Yongkang . But the central government did not order Chen's release, and he refused to cave in. In March 2006, the police detained Chen on spurious charges of disturbing public order and disrupting traffic. He has been behind bars ever since. The lengthy judicial process that preceded his jail sentence of four years and three months was a farce.

Should all this be forgotten amid Olympic excitement and concern for other activists who have been more recently persecuted? Last year, ironically, Chen was recognised by foreign magazines as one of the world's most influential figures, and received 'Asia's Nobel Prize', the prestigious Magsaysay Award. This year, we have heard little of him.

Surely he and his indomitable wife, Yuan Weijing , deserve gold medals for their outstanding performances in human rights. Instead, Chen languishes in prison.

Jerome A. Cohen is an NYU law professor and adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York