Chen Guangcheng is author of “The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China.” This piece is adapted from a statement read before the American Bar Association.
Last summer, the Chinese Communist Party regime began a nationwide crackdown on human rights activists and attorneys. It’s time that the American Bar Association, the largest attorneys organization in the world’s most powerful democracy, took a clear, unequivocal stand on the crackdown in defense of universal values and the rule of law.
Since July, more than 300 people who dared to reveal their names publicly have been caught in the Communist Party’s dragnet — the so-called 709 crackdown, named for the date it began — with estimates of an additional 2,000 to 3,000 people detained or harassed because of family connections with attorneys and activists. Those detained can be subjected to coercion, beatings and torture, and are routinely denied access to lawyers.
Part of the ABA’s mission is to “hold governments accountable under law,” and to “increase public understanding of and respect for the rule of law, the legal process, and the role of the legal profession at home and throughout the world.”
In keeping with its mission, I fully support the efforts of ABA members to encourage the organization to speak openly about human rights violations in China, and I urge the ABA to work with attorneys’ organizations in other democratic nations to condemn the regime’s behavior.
There are three fundamental realities that cannot be ignored when it comes to China today: The party is an authoritarian regime that holds the nation captive to its interests; in an authoritarian system, there is no rule of law, though the party uses laws and regulations as tools to control the people as it sees fit; very few — if any — open, independent organizations are able to act outside of the control and scrutiny of the party.
Organizations such as the All China Lawyers Association and local bar associations act on behalf of the party to keep watch on the ABA in China and also to control and coerce Chinese lawyers. Through the ACLA, Chinese lawyers receive benefits for “good behavior”; if they stray from what the party expects, their law offices may be closed and their legal licenses revoked, and they may be subjected to harsh persecution.
Many in the international community fear that raising human rights issues will anger the regime, endangering foreign access to China or to Chinese organizations. However, the party regime is more worried about international, open criticism than it lets on, and targeted, unified statements from the outside have an impact.
When I was in captivity, I saw that vocal criticism from the West led to improvements in my treatment. Without outside pressure, political prisoners can do very little to defend themselves, as legal procedure is used as a facade to legitimize repression. In my case, accusations against me (disrupting traffic and destroying public property) were concocted, and my so-called trials were a farce: Witnesses were paid to make false statements, evidence was manufactured and my attorneys were not given time to meet with me — to name but a few violations of Chinese law in a Chinese court. My attorneys were repeatedly harassed and beaten: In December 2006, when they tried to visit me, they were attacked with clubs and one suffered serious head trauma and hospitalization.
This is the lawless environment in which human rights activists are working, and the treatment human rights lawyers who try to operate within the Chinese legal system face. Judges and courts cannot act independently. I was told point-blank by judges and prosecutors that they had to obey the party line: There is no independent judiciary, no legal system backed by transparent processes.
Victims in the 709 crackdown have been unlawfully denied the right to speak with their attorneys; the party also uses torture or threats to family members to force them to dismiss their attorneys, a tactic it once tried on me as well. Many are forced to “confess crimes” via the party’s mouthpieces, such as CCTV or the Xinhua News Agency website. This not only violates the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but it also violates China’s own criminal procedure law, which states that individuals cannot testify against themselves.
From the Tiananmen massacre to today, the Chinese people have turned to the law to push the regime into acting lawfully. But each time, the party has crushed its people with violence, revealing its authoritarianism. And since Xi Jinping came to office more than three years ago, the human rights situation has only continued to deteriorate.
Despite these conditions, the Chinese people are fighting back. The regime now spends more on domestic security than it does on national defense, creating a constant undercurrent of fear. But as more people overcome their fear, change will come to China, and freedom and the rule of law will prevail.
I urge the ABA to unite with lawyers organizations around the world to censure the Chinese Communist Party’s violent behavior, to call on democratic nations to use their laws to sanction and punish officials who violate human rights and to use its legal resources to help bring a civil suit against the Communist Party.
The ABA should stand with the Chinese people, in keeping with its values as expressed in its mission — values drawn from the bedrock of American democracy. Let the ABA stand for the rule of law and freedom worldwide.