A year ago, on a trip to China, I wrote about a blind legal activist who was challenging the use of forced abortions and sterilizations in his province.
Chen Guangcheng had the audacity to try to organize a class-action suit by peasants against local officials, arguing that such population-control methods were now banned by Chinese law. When I left Beijing last September, Chen had been beaten and put under house arrest.
Last week, Chen was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of "organizing a mob" to disturb traffic and "willfully damaging property." His lawyers were not allowed to enter the court.
Yet Chen's story is a hopeful event in a summer full of awful news about Middle East mayhem and terrorist plots. It holds important lessons about how democratic changes can emerge in authoritarian states.
Since China opened to the world in the 1980s, communist officials have bet they could reform their economy while keeping a tight lid on the political system. But China's phenomenal economic growth, which has lifted hundreds of millions into the middle class, has also created a huge gap between rich and poor and fueled government corruption.
Helped by access to the Internet, more and more ordinary Chinese have become aware that they have legal rights to challenge corrupt officials. "People are crying for fairness," I was told last year by Wang Xixin, the associate dean of Peking University Law School, as we sat in the student cafeteria surrounded by a crush of young people. "Professors and students are getting more interested in discussing these issues."
Rule of law
A small number of Chinese public-interest lawyers are pressing the courts to enforce national laws ignored by local officials -- on issues such as birth control, environmental abuse, or seizure of private property. Some mid-level officials in Beijing are said to view the growth of rule of law as healthy, and a few public-interest law cases have resulted in positive verdicts.
But the whole concept of public-interest law clearly rattles senior party officials. Chen's case has focused international attention on government efforts to crack down on advocates trying to help Chinese gain their legal rights.
Given that Chen has been jailed, why do I say his story is hopeful? Because his case reveals the genuine urge at the Chinese grass roots for more responsive political leaders.
Chen exemplifies the new, more courageous Chinese citizen willing to fight for those rights -- not by violence, but by legal methods. The government should consider Chen a national hero. Having lost his sight as a child, he still audited law classes and used his knowledge to help his fellow villagers.
He gathered testimony from thousands of residents -- including women forced to have abortions just before their babies were due -- and brought this information to China's State Planning Commission, which had to admit that local officials in Shandong Province had violated Chinese law.
Chen's work was actually helping China's leaders, although they won't admit it. Last year, according to China's Public Security Bureau, there were 74,000 protests and riots nationwide. Many of these protests no doubt were against corrupt local officials. Chen's work was an effort to force such officials to obey the law. If he had succeeded, the people of his village would have felt more of a stake in their system.
No one can impose democracy on China. But if its own people -- with increasing knowledge of the outside world -- keep pressing for change, China's political and judicial institutions will have to evolve, or the level of unrest will keep growing.
The urge for change must come from within -- helped by contact with the Internet (where Chinese can read foreign press reports about cases like Chen's, which the Chinese media are banned from covering). Chinese activists can also be aided by support from international nongovernmental organizations, which can help them learn more about legal systems elsewhere.
Yet the key to change is the courage and dynamism shown by patriots like Chen. Chinese historians may look back at this blind activist and acknowledge that he saw the future more clearly than his jailers.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.