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
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.
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.
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.
Fair trial in doubt
"I'm not willing to go to jail but I'm even more reluctant to be their slave."
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 27 April, 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 defense)
movement, of which Chen Guangcheng was a prominent campaigner.
movement, led by lawyers and academics, has sought to use existing laws
to expose corruption, illegal land grabs, environmental abuses and
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
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.
Respect not subversion
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
"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
Chen Kegui's wife, Liu Fang, had spent two weeks trying to
secure lawyers for her husband, crisscrossing China before finding Liu
Weiguo, based in Shandong's capital Jinan, and Shanghai-based lawyers Yi
Tiejun and Si Weijiang, and Beijing-based Ding Xikui.
She changed cars several times before meeting Liu Weiguo, afraid of being caught and detained herself, Liu Weiguo said.
Wary of lawyers
hope all those who care about us will help us find my husband, give him
a fair answer and make sure those lawbreakers who have illegally
entered our home are severely punished," Liu said, wiping away her
tears, in a video message obtained by Reuters on Monday.
"Where my husband is now, I don't even know."
could not reach the Chen family's village of Dongshigu in an attempt
this month to speak to his relatives. Guards prevented reporters from
even entering the village.
Calls to the government of Linyi, the city in Shandong where Chen Kegui is being held, went unanswered on Wednesday.
Party officials are especially wary of lawyers. Those who have taken on
sensitive issues in the past have been intimidated, beaten, detained or
lost their licenses.
Chen Guangcheng, aged 40, who taught
himself the law, came to national fame by campaigning for farmers and
disabled citizens, and exposing forced abortions. He was jailed for a
little over four years from 2006 on what he and his supporters contend
were trumped-up charges designed to end his rights advocacy.
had accused Shandong officials in 2005 of forcing women to have
late-term abortions and sterilisations to comply with China's strict
family-planning policies. Authorities finally moved against him with
charges of whipping up a crowd that disrupted traffic and damaged
After his release from prison in 2010, Chen spent 19
months under house arrest before he escaped and, with the help of
supporters, reached the US embassy where he sheltered for six days.
is now in a Beijing hospital, being treated for an intestinal illness
and a broken foot, awaiting permission to fly with his wife and two
small children to the United States.
Chen has accused authorities
of harassing and detaining relatives back in Shandong province,
describing the arrest and charging of his nephew as "revenge gone wild".
methods they used against me in 2006 ... are again being used against
Chen Kegui," the dissident, speaking by phone from his hospital room,
told a US House of Representatives committee on human rights on Tuesday.
Zhiqiang, a prominent rights lawyer, said he believed increasing
grievances could strengthen the weiquan movement and lead Beijing to
rethink its use of legal repression.
Degree of protection
don't think Wen Jiabao and Zhou Yangkang's tactics can last," he said,
referring to the Chinese Premier and the security tsar, both of whom are
due to step down in March.
"The ordinary Chinese people need a country that is ruled by law, and not some unprincipled 'harmonious society'," Pu added.
Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said publicity over the
dissident's case, including the plight of his relatives, gave legal
activists a degree of protection.
However, authorities have
already thwarted plans by lawyers, Chen Wuquan and Liu Weiguo, to meet
Chen Kegui and warned many others not to get involved, said Liu Weiguo.
Guangzhou-based lawyer, Chen Wuquan, had been assigned to meet Chen Kegui but said his license was confiscated.
Weiguo said that within hours of meeting Liu Fang he had enlisted five
lawyers to join a Chen Kegui legal team. Within two weeks, seven more
had joined. Four lawyers in the team said that state security officers,
local officials or justice ministry officials had called them to warn
them off the case.
Request for meeting
Liu Weiguo said state security officials had told him last week they would "pay a visit" to his elderly mother.
Fang also last week enlisted Beijing's Ding Xikui who represented
jailed Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo at his 2009 subversion trial.
a member of lawyer Mo Shaoping's firm, said on Tuesday he was in Linyi
with another lawyer, Si Weijiang, waiting for authorities to respond to a
request to meet Chen Kegui at the Yinan County Detention Centre.
Mo said that his firm had not been threatened for taking on the case.
Kegui's mother, Ren Zongju, may also be indicted for "harbouring" him, a
charge punishable by up to 10 years jail, said Liu Weiguo. She was
detained on 29 April and freed on bail.
Liu Fang has left Shandong for fear of reprisals, the lawyer said, adding that he had no way of contacting her now.
'Does China still have law?'
the video, Chen Kegui's wife said she had no idea of her
father-in-law's whereabouts. Chen Fubin, her 5-year-old son, is in
Chen Kegui, a small business owner, spoke with US-based
writer Yaxue Cao before his detention and recounted the raid on his
home by officials looking for his blind uncle.
"I was defending
myself; I didn't go out to kill anyone. It was they who broke into my
home and raised havoc," a sobbing Chen Kegui said in an audio recording
posted on the internet. "I hope lawyers will defend me out of reason and
"I want to ask: does China still have law? In China,
law is trampled over at will. I love my motherland, but this is what she