Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng served 51 months in prison because of his efforts to defend women against forced sterilization by the government. But since completing his prison sentence, he has been imprisoned in his home and abused by police in the town of Linyi in China’s Shandong province for more than a year now. What’s new is that despite strict censorship, the plight of Mr. Chen and his family is attracting attention within China, and sympathizers are traveling from around the country to visit him. They are turned away by plain-clothes police, often violently.
As calls for the government to explain its extra-legal punishment of Mr. Chen grow, the possibility of a tragic confrontation is worrying. However, this bottom-up pressure is the most significant new development for Chinese legal reform in years. There is a chance that Mr. Chen’s cause could become a monumental struggle for freedom and justice in China.
As the recent release of artist Ai Weiwei demonstrates, a combination of domestic and foreign pressure can help dissidents. So increased publicity of Mr. Chen’s case, especially within China, is indispensable.
There are three myths about Mr. Chen’s plight that must be dispelled. One is that such cases of persecution and abuse of lawyers and legal activists are rare in China, and only occur when a few heroic dissidents openly invoke the law to confront injustice rather than rely less confrontational methods.
Mr. Chen never saw himself as a “troublemaker” bent on damaging social stability and harmony. He wanted to improve stability and harmony by using legal institutions to process social grievances in an orderly way as prescribed by law. His only mistake was to accept the law as it was written, as a true believer in China’s legal reforms.