In the Chen Case, Collateral Damage
By Mark McDonald
May 7, 2012
The last time this happened, the last time he was grabbed by the Chinese authorities, he was "disappeared" for 60 days. Beatings, shouts, shackles, blindfolds, no sunlight. He said he was banged on the head so severely -- typically with plastic bottles filled with water -- that his memory began to slip. He couldn't remember his Skype password or how the furniture was arranged in his bedroom back home.
So it scared his friends when Jiang Tianyong was detained last Thursday evening while trying to visit his friend Chen Guangcheng in a hospital in Beijing. Mr. Chen, the blind human rights advocate, had left the protection of the U.S. Embassy, and a major diplomatic wrangle over his future was taking place.
Mr. Jiang, a lawyer who has long supported Mr. Chen, had just been detained and was sitting in a police car when Eva Pils, an associate professor of law in Hong Kong, called his cellphone. Mr. Jiang told her about his situation -- "very tense, naturally," she said. Later, ominously, his phone went unanswered.
"He was held for nine hours and was severely beaten," Ms. Pils said in an interview Monday. "At one point he lost the hearing in one ear. He's now under house arrest. They promised he could see a doctor today. We'll see if that happens."
A former schoolteacher who became a trained and certified lawyer -- unlike Mr. Chen who has no formal legal training -- Mr. Jiang has had his legal license indefinitely suspended for his impertinence in confronting the government and defending, among others, Falun Gong members and a dissident Tibetan monk.
Mr. Jiang and Mr. Chen's involvement in a loose network of human rights advocates and unlicensed quasi-lawyers known in China as "barefoot lawyers" was described in an article in 2005 by Jerome A. Cohen, a New York University law professor who remains a trusted adviser to Mr. Chen.
Mr. Jiang was among several colleagues, accomplices and like-minded activists who were picked up in the days following Mr. Chen's daring and now-celebrated escape from house arrest last month. Beijing and Washington have apparently reached an agreement that will allow Mr. Chen and his family to travel to the United States so he can pursue legal studies.
"It was a huge boost to everybody's morale that Chen Guangcheng could escape" from house arrest, said Ms. Pils, who also serves as director of the Center for Rights and Justice at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Faculty of Law. "We were very happy simply to know that he was safe."
When the revolutions of the Arab Spring were taking shape a year ago, a group of friends and lawyers gathered in Beijing to discuss the plight of Mr. Chen and his family, who were then under detention in their stone farmhouse in rural Shandong Province.
Their meeting was held on Feb. 16, 2011, and within days the authorities began a crackdown against the circle of activists. The Chinese authorities, apparently worried about a possible spillover effect of the unrest in the Middle East, began rounding up dissidents, writers and especially human rights lawyers, "disappearing" them for weeks or months at a time.
"It is clear that the crackdown has reached unprecedented levels -- the threshold that warrants detention by the police has been dramatically lowered," Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said at the time, quoted in a story in the South China Morning Post.
"Now we have entered the most serious wave of political repression."
When it became clear that Mr. Jiang was among those who had been disappeared after the Feb. 16 meeting, the State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said on March 8 that the United States was "increasingly concerned by the apparent extralegal detention and enforced disappearance of some of China's most well-known laywers and activists."
In interviews with the Voice of America, the Morning Post and other media outlets, Mr. Jiang described his incarceration, which included the water-bottle beatings:
I spent the entire detention period in one room, except that they moved me twice. I did not know where I was because when they moved me they covered my head. Day in and day out, I was under a blinding white light in that room. I do not know how I spent the spring; I didn't see a single ray of sunshine.
They clearly told me, 'Don't expect to go through any legal procedures or go to a detention center, let alone have any illusions of going to court. Forget those dreams.' That's exactly what they said to me. They told me that they could keep me in this state for a month, six months, a year, or even longer.
Meanwhile, in the wake of Mr. Chen's dramatic escapade, Ms. Pils does not expect a rush of Chinese lawyers and dissidents to be suddenly seeking refuge in Western embassies and consulates, following the lead of Mr. Chen whose fame, after all, preceded him.
And for any dissident or activist to leave China for good, she said, was "a hugely difficult decision, even for those who have been badly tortured."