The Chen Guangcheng Case: Hollywood’s Batman, China’s Legal Daredevil and the Rest

Posted on | mei 30, 2012 | No Comments

Dissident lawyer Cheng

(John Givens, who joins the Center for Asian Democracy in August, guests for The Durian again, this time blogging on the Chen Guangcheng affair)In mid-December of 2011, Christian Bale, Hollywood’s Batman, made headlines when he accompanied by a CNN camera crew was rebuffed and chased by plain-clothes guards for attempting to visit the unlicensed lawyer, Chen Guangcheng. Four months later it was Chen who looked like a superhero, climbing over a wall and evading multiple cordons of guards to rendezvous with Chinese human rights activists who would smuggle him into the US embassy in Beijing. After US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton negotiated on his behalf, Chen left the embassy to seek treatment in a Beijing hospital for injuries that occurred during his escape. The activists who assisted him, his lawyers and family are already beginning to experience the fallout. Their ultimate fate, that of Chen himself, and how damaging this incident will prove to the US and Chinese governments is yet to be seen, but Chen’s case has already had tremendous impact in terms of capturing international attention.

Chen had not always been at odds with the Chinese state. At the start of his legal career, officials and the media lauded Chen for advocating the rights of the disabled. But in 2006, he was imprisoned on charges of “intentionally damaging property and gathering a crowd to disrupt traffic [故意毁坏财物罪以及聚众扰乱交通罪]” and was put under house arrest after his release in 2010. The charges came in retaliation for suing overzealous officials in Shandong’s Linyi prefecture on behalf of “thousands of local women who had been the victims of an aggressive family planning campaign that included forced sterilizations and abortions.” Perhaps more importantly, Chen continued to publicize the case when the courts ignored his appeal including interviews with Time magazine and the Washington Post, and public protests by his supporters. Chen’s case exemplifies a common, but unrepresentative, conception of Chinese lawyers as activists who “use legal institutions and other platforms to challenge China’s authoritarian system”.
It is perhaps inevitable that people will make judgements about China’s legal and political system based on Chen’s case. But drawing conclusions from a single instance is always dangerous, and it is especially uninstructive in Chen’s case because it is so extreme. As I have argued elsewhere, though China’s rule of law is deeply flawed, “for every Chinese lawyer whose abduction or detention is reported, thousands of lawyers are challenging the state in myriad unreported ways.” My forthcoming research, based on 175 interviews and two large surveys of Chinese lawyers, will demonstrate how lawyers with connections to the Chinese state frequently and successfully challenge local governments in less dramatic instances.
In China, it is generally contentious extra-legal activities, such as going to the media, organizing activists and outright protest that results in lawyers landing themselves in trouble and the most successful lawyers are able to use even some of these tactics to their advantage. For example, domestic media attention or making a ruckus in the streets or online can help put pressure on officials. Chen Guangcheng’s problems probably arose because his courage and conviction drove him to take actions which, especially in combination, put him far past the line of what the Chinese Communist Party would accept. In particular, his case touched on a nationally sensitive issue (the one-child policy) and he spoke with and was well publicized in the foreign media. Most lawyers would probably have avoided serious reprisals by giving up after they lost in the first instance and their appeal was ignored. Additionally, they probably would have brought a case with far fewer than the thousand plus plaintiffs that Chen attempted (the largest collective suit brought by any of the lawyers I have interviewed was under 700). Whether less aggressive tactics would have been more effective is difficult to say, but they likely would have kept Chen out of trouble.
Chen’s courage deserves to be applauded and the international community should do everything in its power to protect Chen, his family and his lawyers. Whether the actions of impossibly brave outliers like Chen and Gao Zhisheng, or the much larger number of lawyers that seek modest change within the system will ultimately do more to bring justice to average Chinese is impossible to predict, but, China probably benefits from both types of actor. In any case, the international community needs to refrain from taking the Chen case as an archetype and should extend support to all those who work for justice in China, not just superheroes like Chen.

AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Abbott
E-MAIL: [at]


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