The Atlantic’s James Fallows spoke recently to legal activist Chen Guangcheng, currently living in New York after his dramatic escape from house arrest in April. Chen explained his views on the deterioration of rule of law in China, the country’s prospects for peaceful reform, and the role that international pressure might play in encouraging it.
As you think about the overall situation for the rule of law, and development of civil society and individual liberties in China, would you say that things are on the whole getting better? Or getting worse?
[…] I think China has taken the first step, which is to make sure that there are rules and regulations and laws that govern the society. China is not doing a great job of the second step, which is to make sure that those rules are implemented and complied with in practice. Law enforcement generally speaking cannot function in today’s Chinese society. That is what has given rise to all these numerous cases in which the government ignores the rules that they themselves have set up. For instance, the case of my nephew [Chen Kegui, arrested after Chen’s departure], and my own case. These are all examples of the government’s blatant ignorance of the law. The government acts contrary to the law, tortures people, ‘disappears’ them, does all sorts of things to the innocent people without any legal basis,
What do you think outside individuals or organizations who support China’s evolution to a rule-of-law society can most usefully do?
[…] I want to deliver this message to people in any democracy in the world. I want to let them know that every effort they have made in this respect will make a huge difference in China. I urge them to have faith in their ability to make changes in China. Be confident and speak out. The sky won’t fall just because people speak up on their own opinion.
Chen reiterated his view that Western companies should take on more social responsibility in China, singling Google out for praise: “It really has played a model role in this respect …. So far I believe that Google has earned the confidence of the Chinese people.”
Chen finally met with his admirer Christian Bale this week at an awards dinner hosted by Human Rights First. The Batman star mounted an unsuccessful attempt to visit Chen last December in the village of Dongshigu where he and his family were being illegally held. One of the guards who aggressively blocked Bale’s visit went on to attain some measure of Internet stardom as a new Batman nemesis and generally Photoshopped omnipresence.
Chen, who has been blind since early childhood and taught himself law, showed physical courage comparable to the Tank Man’s in climbing over walls and feeling his way along roadsides for miles, to escape the house in which local authorities had detained and physically abused him and his family for years. He broke a bone in his foot and fell repeatedly, but he continued on.
Yet his more impressive courage is intellectual and temperamental. Intellectually, he has challenged Chinese authorities, not to give up their hold on power, but instead to live up to the commitments they have made to Chinese citizens, on issues ranging from the rights of the disabled to protection against forced abortions. Temperamentally, he has remained resolute and optimistic, even while knowing that his family still in China is vulnerable to retribution, and that as an exile, he may lose influence in his homeland.
Also on the Brave Thinkers list is Shanghai-born architect Jun Xia, currently directing the design of the 121-floor Shanghai Tower.