Amidst the hyperbole about serried ranks of gleaming new skyscrapers, the swelling middle class, the dazzling preparations for the Olympics and so forth, it is always worth getting a solid reality check about what underlies that rosy picture, the fact that China remains a highly repressive authoritarian state. I met recently for a coffee in a small Beijing cafe with social activist Teng Biao and public interest lawyer Li Heping, two unassuming gentlemen who are painfully well aware of the lengths the Chinese system will go to preserve itself.
Li is one of the lawyers who represented blind activist Chen Guangcheng in his trial last year on what in other circumstances might seem absurd charges of damaging property and…. wait for it….. attempting to organize a crowd to obstruct traffic. In fact, Chen’s crime seems to have been that he embarrassed officials in his home province of Shandong. Chen is a self-schooled legal activist who publicized the plight of women who had been forced by local government officials to undergo abortions or sterilizations as part of the nation’s family-planning campaign. After nearly a year in detention, Chen was sentenced to four years three months in jail last September. (Chen’s wife Yuan Weijing, Li says, faced similar charges and is now under house arrest in their home village, caring for their son.)
Li told me that he last saw Chen on January 15. He had lost weight, was plagued by serious stomach problems and was being denied privileges given to other prisoners such as being able to buy food items such as instant noodles. “It is very hard for him,” Li said with a sigh. “Can you imagine what it’s like to be in prison and be blind?”
With his formal avenues for appeal already exhausted, Chen’s only recourse now is China’s Byzantine petitioning system, a holdover from imperial days that exists in parallel with the legal system. As Li notes, it is rare for a petition to even be accepted by the relevant office, much less be acted on. And in many cases, orders issued in Beijing or a provincial capital as a result of a successful petition are ignored by lower authorities. (Tiangao, huangdi yuan, “Heaven is high and the Emperor far away,” the Chinese say. Beijing has enormous trouble enforcing its will at the local level, where the local bosses pretty much do what they want.) Still, Li said that so far Chen’s spirits are holding up well. “He is very strong,” said Teng.
Both Li and Teng are pretty formidable souls themselves and remain dedicated to their public interest vocations despite knowing full well what the consequences can be. Last December, Li and three other lawyers took a long distance bus from Beijing to visit Chen. The bus was stopped in mid-journey and a group of 7-8 unidentified men climbed on board and attacked the lawyers, some of them wielding iron bars. “I keep a positive attitude,” Li said, but inevitably such experiences “shake my belief in the legal system of this country.”
Then Li showed me a picture someone had taken of him after the beating. His entire head and faced are covered in blood. I asked if I could have a copy to post on this blog but he declined. “It would be too sad,” for people to see the picture, he said. “I am working to promote the law but the law cannot even protect me. And I cannot protect my clients.”