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Chen Guangcheng in New York: An Interview

Chen Guangcheng outside his house in Dongshigu village, Shandong province, northeast China, March 2005

Following are excerpts from a recent conversation among Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who was recently permitted to leave China and is currently a distinguished visitor at New York University School of Law; Jerome A. Cohen, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the US-Asia Law Institute at the NYU School of Law, who was active in securing Chen Guangcheng’s release; and Ira Belkin, Executive Director of the US-Asia Law Institute. For this exchange, Professor Cohen would put a question to Mr. Chen in Chinese and then summarize it to the audience at the New School in New York City. Ira Belkin then translated Mr. Chen’s replies into English.

Jerome Cohen: I wanted to ask Chen Guangcheng if tomorrow he had a chance to meet with the new leader of China, Xi Jinping, what would he ask him about with respect to law, human rights, the rule of law? What suggestions would he make about this?

Chen Guangcheng: First I just want to make sure, will Xi Jinping come to see me tomorrow? I just want to say that Xi Jinping probably understands the situation in China very clearly. I guess I would say to him that to have a truly stable and safe society you need a society that has fairness and social justice, and to have that kind of society you need to have a constitutional government, fairness, and free speech.

I want to use an old Chinese saying, the meaning of which is that a society has to allow the good in people to come out in order for that society to be stable. So in Chinese culture from a very long time ago there was a saying that if something is good, even if it is a very trivial matter, don’t refrain from doing it, even if it’s a small matter, and if something is evil or bad, don’t do it just because it is a small evil. And this is part of ancient Chinese culture.

Today a lot of people are imprisoned just because they spoke the truth. This is not a good way. This is not a way to bring out the good in people.

JC: I’m saying so far Chen Guangcheng has given us a rather abstract simplified version of things. He can give us of course many more specifics and I asked him, for example, does he want to discuss the case of his nephew who was recently imprisoned for three years and three months, in what many people interpret as an act of revenge by the local authorities because of the embarrassment he caused them by escaping at the end of April 2012?

CG: I would say that in China right now there are many good laws that are consistent with justice and there are just a few bad laws that are inconsistent with justice, but it seems like the good laws often are not enforced and the bad laws are enforced quite widely. So many people may know of the case involving my nephew, Chen Kegui. It is really a continuation of my own case and right now he is in prison in China.

Chinese law is very clear. Under the Chinese constitution a Chinese citizen’s right to have privacy in his or her own home cannot be infringed. To enter someone’s home illegally should be punishable under Chinese criminal law by ten years in prison. Chinese criminal law is also very clear that people are allowed to act in self-defense to protect their personal safety or their personal property and that if they do so it is not a crime.

But what we see, in reality, is that local officials and the deputy village chief gathered a group of thugs and entered the home of Chen Kegui and beat him and beat his family and destroyed his property. He just tried to defend himself, just to avoid being beaten to death. The intruders were not pursued, were not prosecuted, but instead my nephew, who was just defending himself, was prosecuted. I think anyone no matter where they are or who they are would recognize that this kind of situation is not lawful, is not just. The law is very clear and the people in China see the illegality of the situation but there is nothing they can do about it.

The legal system in China is kind of upside down where black is white and white is black and lawyers cannot fully represent their clients. This is the legal system in China today. If the secretary of the Communist Party doesn’t obey the law, how can you expect ordinary people to obey the law? Many years ago in China, Confucius said—and now there are Confucius institutes all over the world—don’t do unto others what you would not have them do unto you. If the leaders act appropriately then everyone under the leaders, the ordinary people or their underlings, wouldn’t dare to not act appropriately.

JC: I asked what about his nephew; didn’t he have a defense lawyer?

CG: During this whole incident, this whole case from beginning to end, Kegui wasn’t allowed to see his own lawyers. The government arranged for two lawyers to represent him and what’s very funny is that those two lawyers came from the same law firm that was chosen to represent me in my case many years ago.

I’ll tell you a bit of news: after the trial was over and the family members met with Kegui, it was clear that his lawyers never had a chance to talk to him about his right to appeal; and he just accepted that he should waive his right to appeal. And the local Party secretary, Ma Chenglian, visited Chen Kegui in prison several times and tried to deceive him and threaten him. He told him that the case has already gotten to the point that if you cooperate with us we’ll make sure you get the lightest sentence possible, but if you don’t cooperate, we’ll make sure you get the heaviest sentence. And if you don’t accept the lawyers that we’ve arranged for you, we are not going to let you see the lawyer hired for you anyway.

JC: I’m asking him about the trial, so-called.

CG: The whole trial really wasn’t conducted in a lawful way. The night that this incident happened it was after midnight and Chen Kegui called the police to report the intruders several times. The family never received a copy of the indictment and they didn’t receive notice of the trial until just a few hours before it was to start. All of these things are in violation of Chinese law. Forcing two lawyers on Chen Kegui that he didn’t choose for himself is also against the Chinese Criminal Procedure Law and the Chinese Lawyers’ Law.

JC: What about Chen Kegui’s parents? They were involved. They could have been witnesses. Did they in fact testify? Were there other witnesses at the trial?

CG: His parents asked to attend the trial but they were told that they were witnesses so they couldn’t attend and they were put inside a police vehicle outside the courthouse on the street and they had to stay there for the duration of the trial. In the whole county of Yinan, there were police vehicles all along the streets preventing anybody from outside coming into the area, preventing journalists who wanted to come and see the trial. If his parents tried to leave the vehicle at any time, there were many, many police in the area who would just go up to them and say: “You have to get back in the car. You have to get back in the car. Why are you getting out of the car?”

After the trial was over and they had not been called as witnesses to give any testimony, they saw that there were police vehicles and they wanted to go over and ask if they could see their son but the police vehicles had windows that were blacked out and they couldn’t see through them. The government said that this was a public trial. There’s a very simple phrase in China: “If you’ve done nothing wrong, why wouldn’t you want other people to see it?” They knew that what they were doing was wrong and they didn’t want other people to see it.

JC: Before Chen Guangcheng left China the Chinese government promised that, as to his own case in Shandong province, they would investigate fully and give him a complete report. I want to ask him about that.

CG: Yes, before I left they said very clearly—they promised me on behalf of the central government—that they would investigate the activity of local officials for the past several years, their illegal activity, and open up a full investigation and even allow our lawyers to participate. So they made this promise not just to me but they made it to the whole world, and in fact this promise was part of the US–China agreement about me. But not only have they not conducted any investigation, in fact the local officials who carried out these activities have all been promoted and my nephew, Chen Kegui, sits in jail.

I’ve heard that the Chinese ambassador to the United States said that he doesn’t know where I am. If any of you know how to reach him, please let him know I am here. But I think that NYU is not that hard to find. There’s another phrase in Chinese: “If people don’t trust you, if you’re not trustworthy, that’s to your disadvantage.” I would ask everyone: Do you believe what the Chinese government is saying? I hope that President Obama and Secretary Kerry can make sure that the Chinese government lives up to the promise that it made in its agreement [when I was allowed to travel to the US].

JC: One of the questions we are always asked when people invite Mr. Chen to give a talk is how they should characterize him. The press often, in shorthand terms, say he is a dissident and that always makes me uncomfortable because he’s not your classic dissident who comes here overtly wanting to see an end to the Chinese Communist government. He’s never in China advocated overthrowing the government. His challenge to the government is to live up to its own laws. Use your own legal institutions. He wanted to be someone who used the law, not the streets, to protest various violations, and what we’re watching since he came here is that he’s getting closer and closer to being a dissident because of the frustration and the lack of response from the Chinese government.

CG: The Chinese language has another saying: “If you don’t tear down the old, you can’t build the new.” And all I’m saying is that China should have a society that’s just, that’s fair, that’s constitutional, that’s lawful, that’s democratic. This is what I want. This is what my goal is. So what I’m saying is that if the Chinese Communist Party continues to suppress civil society and doesn’t allow civil society to develop and reach these goals, maybe the Communist Party has to step aside or be pushed aside. I’m not saying that it should be pushed aside for the sake of pushing it aside. All I’m saying is that if it can’t deliver on what the people want, then maybe the people will have to get what they want without the Communist Party.

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