PHILADELPHIA – A last-minute deal between the United States and China may afford human-rights lawyer and activist Chen Guangcheng the opportunity to enroll in law school in New York. But, even if a way out of the diplomatic debacle is at hand, much about the case remains troubling. In particular, despite more than three decades of legal reform in China, Chen had precious little recourse to fight harassment and house arrest at the hands of the Chinese authorities.
Indeed, 23 years after dissident Fang Lizhi took refuge in the US embassy following the crackdown in Tiananmen Square, Chen’s only option was to take the same last-gasp leap into the arms of American diplomats. Chen’s case reveals weaknesses in China’s legal system, and it should spark a push to build stronger ties between China’s human-rights activists and the broader legal profession.
Chen rose to prominence as a self-educated legal activist after he challenged harsh enforcement of the government’s family-planning policies. His approach reflected a larger trend of rights-based resistance in China that began in that late 1990’s; Chen was part of a coterie of lawyers and activists, some well-known and many others not, who wanted to see the government behave according to its own rules.
This activism was interpreted as a sign of an emerging rule-of-law culture in China. But Chen’s career as a legal activist met an abrupt end with a conviction for disturbing public order, and most experts inside and outside of China considered his ensuing confinement to be unlawful.