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Meeting Chen Guangcheng

After posting several pieces about China, I suppose it’s appropriate that I’m reporting an experience from today that definitely counts as a highlight of my year. This morning I had the chance, along with ten other folks from my program, to sit down with Chen Guangcheng.

Chen Guangcheng at the US Embassy on 1 May 2012

If that name doesn’t immediately ring any bells, Chen is a Chinese human rights lawyer who is also blind. He repeatedly drew attention to abuses in contemporary China by suing governmental officials, demanding that they would abide by the guarantees in China’s constitution and written laws. He particularly pointed to the dreadful effects of China’s one-child policy, including the abortions performed on women against their will. For this, Chen was imprisoned and then placed under house arrest. Last year, he escaped to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and asked for asylum. This generated an international incident, and Hillary Clinton was forced to dance around the issue until a way was found to get Chen out of the country. With certain wordings secured, Chen was able to come to the United States. (Here’s a NY Times piece on Chen from two days ago.)

Although he’s now living in New York City, he was down in Princeton for some meetings. To meet with him was most impressive. He should be recognized as a real hero–someone truly willing to speak truth to power and to do so by pointing to the law.

Chen speaks no English, so the entire conversation was mediated through a translator. Still, we had some fascinating exchanges.

I appreciated the moment when someone brought up how he’s referred to in China, and Chen observed that officially he has “gone abroad to study.”

Chen made much about the conflict between the Communist Party, which wants to be the only locus of identity and authority in China, and the desire for civil society. When I asked him to elaborate on this, he made the point that anything Westerners can do to encourage civil society in China will be helpful.

Of course, the very concept of a civil society apart from the power structure of the Party is a challenge to it. By contrast, the West has thrived by recognizing private realms as well as “public spheres” that are still non-governmental. On this point, I’d be happy to recommend Alexis De Tocqueville as a great theorist of the necessity of Voluntary Societies for the functioning of self-government.

Another interesting exchange came regarding the nature of law. To Chen, there is no rule of law in China. There is no independent judiciary: law is just an outgrowth of the Party. Where, then, might China develop such a concept? Chen observed that there still existed the memory of Daoist philosophy, which spoke of law as part of the “ordering of Heaven.” A colleague astutely pointed out that writers such as C.S. Lewis had connected the Dao to a larger concept of Natural Law. It strikes me that this would be an investigation worthy of a conference at some point.

Our time together ended too soon, but I have to say I was most impressed. I will follow Chen’s next contributions with great interest.

Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chen_Guangcheng

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