BEIJING: China may have sown the seeds of its next human rights row with the United States even as it looks to end the current one over blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, with its treatment of him inspiring a band of lawyers to join his human-rights battle.
The tough line over Chen, whose plea for US protection sparked a diplomatic crisis with Washington, has encouraged Chinese lawyers and advocates to challenge what they see as the ruling Communist Party’s stifling of lawful dissent.
Embarrassed by Chen’s escape from house arrest and dash to the US embassy in Beijing last month, the government is expected to allow Chen and his family to travel to the United States as a way of easing Sino-US tensions on human rights.
Lawyers from around the country have already come forward to provide his extended family with the kind of advocacy Chen, a self-taught legal activist, became famous for — taking on politically sensitive cases against all odds.
More than a dozen lawyers have offered to represent his nephew, detained in the immediate aftermath of the discovery of Chen’s escape from his heavily guarded home in Shandong province, northeast China.
“Sooner or later, if you don’t want to be a slave here to authorities, you’d have to make some plans for jail,” said Liu Weiguo, a leading member of the legal team that risks the wrath of party officials by acting for Chen’s nephew, Chen Kegui.
“I’m not willing to go to jail but I’m even more reluctant to be their slave.”
Chen Kegui, aged in his early 30s, could face the death penalty after he allegedly used knives to fend off local officials who burst into his home on April 27, the day after they discovered his blind uncle had evaded a security dragnet.
Liu Weiguo said he doubted his new client would get a fair trial, but his decision to take the case anyway is consistent with the approach of China’s weiquan (rights defence) movement, of which Chen Guangcheng was a prominent campaigner.
The movement, led by lawyers and academics, has sought to use existing laws to expose corruption, illegal land grabs, environmental abuses and other injustices. Already weakened by detentions and jailings over the years, it was effectively killed off 12 months ago in a crackdown on dissent that appeared intended to show the party could not be challenged.
But Chen Guangcheng’s case has exposed kinks in the party’s armour just months before a leadership succession and his appeal for US protection has also ensured Washington takes a keen interest, not only in Chen but the plight of his relatives.
“If we are talking entirely about the law, then we are very confident,” Liu Weiguo said of defending Chen Kegui, who the local Yinan public security bureau says is charged with “intentional homicide” despite not killing anyone.
“But what we’re facing now is not a legal issue. Because of our experiences, we know that trials that are held not in accordance with the law are very common.”
The weiquan movement is awkward for authorities because it calls for laws to be respected or reformed, not subverted, and uses the Internet rather than underground political parties or street protests.
“This change doesn’t come automatically, it has to be fought for, and people like Chen are brave enough to fight for it,” Sarah Schafer, a researcher for Amnesty International, said. “They are using the tools that the Chinese Communist Party has said they are allowed to use, which is the tool of law.”